I beg to move amendment 103, page 37, line 39, leave out
‘in relation to each reporting period’ and insert
(a) a formal complaint is received by the Certification Officer that would result in the Certification Officer requiring a membership audit in relation to the reporting period when the complaint was verified and
(b) the Certification Officer determined that a certificate was required.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 104, page 38, line 7, at end insert
(a) the Trade Union is appealing the membership certificate; or
Amendment 106, page 38, line 22, leave out from ‘certificate’ to end of line 23 and insert
‘for which the trade union may request reasonable payment as per charges for requests for access to accounting periods in section 30(6).’.
Amendment 121, in clause 37, page 38, line 42, leave out
‘in relation to each reporting period’ and insert
‘if section 24ZA(1) is invoked’.
Clause stand part.
It is a great pleasure to get to part 3 under your chairmanship, Ms Primarolo. I shall speak to clause stand part as well as to all the amendments in the group. It is totally inadequate that we are discussing part 3 of this hotch-potch of a Bill without having seen the impact assessment for part 3 or any results from the curtailed consultation that was put in place at the start of the process.
It is worth putting the amendments into context. The past three days and the hundreds of e-mails that all Members have received from their constituents show how much of a dog’s breakfast the Bill is. It is in good company, following the hotch-potch of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill and the total shambles that the House witnessed during the passage of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. Part 3 of the Bill before us provides wide-ranging new powers to the certification officer on trade union membership lists, but no one, including officials of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the discussion paper, the explanatory notes, the trade unions and, I bet, even the Minister can tell the Committee what problem the Bill is trying to resolve.
The TUC stated in its evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee:
“As with part two we are unable to discern the problem that this part of the Bill is meant to remedy.”
Nigel Stanley from the TUC went on to say:
“We have asked BIS, the certification officer and ACAS through freedom of information requests whether they have received or made representations that we need to amend current powers to regulate union membership . . . We cannot find any demand for part 3.”
The only justification for part 3 has been the publicly stated view that it came out of a high-level meeting between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. What a contribution and combination that is. I wonder whether Lyndon Crosby was in the room at the time.
Without any rationale for the Bill coming from the Government, perhaps we have to look for our own rationale. The reason given for the Bill by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in its discussion paper is the potential for trade union activity to affect people’s daily lives. It says:
“The general public should be confident that voting papers and other communications are reaching union members so that they have the opportunity to participate”.
My hon. Friend is aware, as we all are, of the clamour for at least 20 years for the reform of lobbying practices. Can he think of any demand for part 3? Is it not sensible to judge that this is merely an afterthought—a spiteful swipe at the trade union movement—in order to distract from the fact that the Bill does not address 95% of commercial corporate lobbyists?
My hon. Friend is right. Parts 1 and 2 have been shown over the past few days to be utterly deficient. There is no evidence, no drive, no remedy to be pursued, no problem to be resolved that would justify part 3. There is legislation in place, which I shall come on to later, which shows that membership lists from trade unions are heavily regulated already. Part 3 is merely a legislative burden on the trade unions timed to deflect attention, as my hon. Friend says, from other parts of the Bill that are completely deficient.
My hon. Friend hit the nail on the head when he said that part 3 came from the high-level discussion between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. This is a continuation of other Bills that have been introduced over the past three years on the constitution of this country. They all aim at one thing—giving advantage to the parties in the coalition in the upcoming general election. Yesterday we saw their attempt to hide from lobbying groups and not be answerable to them. Now they are trying to curtail the influence of the trade unions and the support that they give to the Labour party in particular to give their own parties an advantage. That is what this is all about.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government cannot win the next general election on the arguments so they nullify the Opposition. It is ironic that part 3 heavily regulates trade union membership lists, whereas most of the stuff attacking workers’ rights came from the report written by a certain Mr Beecroft, who donated £550,000 to the Conservative party. The Bill deals not with the Beecrofts of this world but with the ordinary working people throughout the country.
Does not part 3 show that the Bill is partisan, and is it not one of the main reasons the Bill has lost the confidence of the public?
Absolutely. Parts 1 and 2 have been shown to have lost public confidence. I am happy to be corrected, but since I came to the House in 2010 I do not think I have had this number of lobbying e-mails from concerned constituents who feel that they are going to be gagged by this Government. As I said to my hon. Friend Mr Anderson, the governing parties cannot win the next general election on the arguments alone so they are trying to nullify the opposition, which is made up of trade unions, charities and lobbying organisations which do so much on behalf of our constituents throughout the country.
No evidence was put forward in the discussion paper to demonstrate that communications are not reaching trade union members or that there are shortcomings in the existing law relating to a trade union’s duty to maintain a register of members. Moreover, no evidence was produced to explain why the Government need to acquire yet further extensive powers over the lives of citizens and voters through this mechanism.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting intervention—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Jo Swinson, a Lib Dem Minister, shakes her head—and he is absolutely right; the Conservative party refuses point blank not only to give us any details of its membership, but to tell us how many members it has. I believe that is either because it cannot tell us or because its membership lists are deficient. [Interruption.] The Government Whip chunters “Tell us yours” from the Treasury Bench, but essentially we are talking about the Conservative party.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in its justification for this part of the Bill, stated:
“The general public should be confident that voting papers and other communications are reaching union members so that they have the opportunity to participate” because they affect everyday lives in this country. Well, if the governing party does not affect the daily lives of people in this country, I do not know who does. Perhaps we should extend the Bill’s provisions to that party. The only thing we know about Conservative party membership, of course, is that the average age is 68, which might tell us something about where the party is going.
We should not be surprised by the Government’s failure to provide any evidence, as we know that they run by opinion poll and anecdote. The House will recall the now infamous Beecroft report, which would take this country’s employment rights and health and safety landscapes back to the era of Queen Victoria. When Beecroft appeared before the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill Committee last year, he said that he had absolutely no evidence to back up such claims on compensated no-fault dismissal and the abolition of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, to name but a few, but that his assessments were based on anecdotal evidence and who he had spoken to. This “met a guy in a pub” type policy making is certainly not good government.
My hon. Friend raises some fundamental human rights issues. When I asked the Deputy Leader of the House yesterday why the Government had failed to produce a human rights memorandum, he failed to answer. Perhaps that speaks volumes—[Interruption.] I am not sure what the Leader of the House just said from a sedentary position, but perhaps he will want to respond properly in due course.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will move on to clause 37 later this afternoon, when we will address some of the issues relating to confidentiality and the European articles. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House chunters from a sedentary position that we should speak to the amendments. As I understand it, Mr Speaker has grouped the stand part debate with the amendments, and I am addressing why I think clause 36 and part 3 of the Bill are deficient, which I think is perfectly appropriate.
I was talking about the Beecroft report’s ideological attack on working people and how the Government are making it easier to fire, rather than hire, employees. That is reflected in the thrust behind amendment 103— I say this for the benefit of the Leader of the House—and subsequent amendments in this group. The Government have yet again failed to produce any evidence whatsoever on what problem they are trying to resolve and what the impact will be on membership lists. Not only do they have no evidence, but, as I mentioned at the start of my speech, they do not even have an impact assessment for this part of the Bill and they have done no suitable consultation.
My hon. Friend will remember that Adrian Beecroft appeared before the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill Committee last year. When asked detailed questions, he could give absolutely no evidence whatsoever for what he was suggesting, yet some of those suggestions can be found in this Bill today.
Absolutely, which is why we should be addressing those issues in the Beecroft report, because they influence part 3 of the Bill. Perhaps Ministers, rather than chuntering from a sedentary position, might at last answer some of these questions when they come to the Dispatch Box.
I was talking about the lack of suitable consultation. As far as I am aware, the Government have still not published an impact or cost assessment for part 3 —[Interruption.] The Minister says that they have, but it was not there at 10.30 this morning. They did publish assessments for parts 1 and 2 back in July. In fact, the equality assessment states:
“A full impact assessment will be developed after, and informed by, a period of targeted consultation and engagement of a range of experts.”
But the Committee is debating this legislation before any of that work has been either completed or formally published.
On the question of consultation, my hon. Friend has quoted from the TUC’s evidence, which was given to my Committee in very short order indeed, because the Committee decided that the House should have some evidence. The reality is that this part of the Bill appeared eight working days ago; it appeared just before the end of July, the day before the House rose, and Second Reading was the day after the House returned, so that is three working days, and that was a week ago. If one wanted part of a Bill to not be properly scrutinised, this is precisely how one would do it. Either this House will do the scrutiny properly, or the other place will do it in due course.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. As Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, he has done some wonderful work on the Bill, and at very short notice. It is a great credit not only to him and the Committee’s staff, but to the other Members who serve on it. He has demonstrated how the Government operate. If one wanted to put something through that was ideologically driven but did not want it to be scrutinised, one would do as the Government have done with this Bill.
My hon. Friend tempts me to use unparliamentary language, but I will not go down that route. It is a fact that last night every single Lib Dem Member went into the Lobby with the Government to vote for part 2 and that it was only Conservative rebels who decided not to put up with the Bill. I think that is unfortunate.
I do not want to tempt the hon. Gentleman into using unparliamentary language, but he is factually incorrect. I do not wish to have yesterday’s debate about charities all over again, but the fact is that reassurances were given by the Government that there is a lot of work to be done, in which I hope we will all engage so that we can bring forward improvements on Report. I would have thought that we should all be working constructively towards that end.
Thank you, Ms Primarolo. You are absolutely right. That would have tempted me to discuss Andrew George producing amendments to other Bills in Committee and then not following through on the Floor of the House.
I was talking about the Government’s failure to produce any evidence, which I think feeds into amendment 103, because it is critical to the operation of the entire part, in relation to clause 36. My second point about the Department’s consultation is that it has not published or responded to any of the responses. The only information that Members of the House have seen is when people who have responded to the BIS consultation have self-published them, and I do not think that is good enough.
Trade unions are already heavily regulated, not just with regard to membership, but in other areas, too. No other membership organisations, voluntary sector groups, businesses or, indeed, political parties in the UK are subject to equivalent rules. There are already extensive regulations through the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act of 1992 and the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998—a fact that the Government seem to have wholeheartedly disregarded in bringing forward the Bill—and the responsibility trade unions have to the Information Commissioner.
When the hon. Gentleman refers to the 1992 Act, he is of course referring to legislation from the mid-1980s that was virtually lifted into that Act. Does he not think that it is now time for a general review of that 1980s legislation?
If the hon. Gentleman wants to bring forward a general review of any legislation, he is more than welcome to do so. Perhaps in my haste I forgot to use the word “consolidated”. I was referring to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, because of course it consolidated lots of legislation from the mid-1980s.
It is self-evident that trade unions want to have good membership records; I cannot see why anyone would argue that they do not. It is in trade unions’ own interests to engage with members just as any voluntary organisation wishes to maximise membership fees and ensure that people want to remain as members. Unions are nothing without their members; they exist to represent their members. They invest in a wide array of ways of communicating with them—from printed magazines, leaflets and posters, to websites, social media and e-newsletters.
“Trade unions are influential participants in public life. They have an important role representing members’ interests both with specific employers and in wider public debate.”—[Hansard, 3 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 184.]
Who would argue with that? On the certification of trade union membership details, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills discussion paper says on page 4:
“Trade union activity has the potential to affect the daily lives of members and non- members.”
Surely those definitions apply as much to political parties as to trade unions. Political parties represent their members’ interests, influence wider public debate and can affect the lives of members and non-members. Trade union members represent a very wide and varied section of the general public.
The House of Commons Library brief shows that there are 7.2 million trade unionists. They represent a cross-section of ages, are split evenly in terms of gender and are well represented in terms of race, disability and types of work. Surely trade unions are in a good position to influence and share public opinion. In sharp contrast, there is an organisation that is the complete opposite and totally unrepresentative—the aforementioned Conservative party, which refuses to say how many members it has.
On a point of order, Ms Primarolo. My Committee looked at the White Paper on the lobbying Bill about 18 months ago. It made no mention of anything to do with the trade unions. The trade union provisions appeared in July, one day before the House rose—a bit about trade unions was bolted on to a Bill that all of us in the House had already dealt with as a lobbying Bill. Is it in order for those provisions to have been added when the House has been under the misapprehension that the Bill is about lobbying? Is this not a hybrid Bill and therefore disqualified from discussion in the House?
The Second Deputy Chairman:
The hon. Gentleman is very experienced and has been a Member for a long time. As he knows, what he has asked is not a point of order. The House has given the Bill a Second Reading, and his points are for debate, if necessary, on the Floor of the House. They are certainly not a matter of order for the consideration of the Chair today.
Thank you, Ms Primarolo, for that ruling on an important point of order. I remind my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, that other stuff has been bolted on to Bills, including the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill—disgracefully, the agricultural wages board was abolished at the last minute in the House of Lords without any political debate in this House.
Before the Government start lecturing unions about transparency, they should take a long, hard look in the mirror, subject themselves to this legislation and publish their own membership audit certificate.
Will my hon. Friend share with the Committee why he thinks a Government who came to power saying that they would cut and eliminate red tape should apply it to the trade unions?
That is a good question. The Government have a policy initiative of taking out two regulations for every one brought in. Will the Minister say which regulatory burden she will be removing from the trade union movement, given the regulations that she has just put on the statute book? The Government have wholeheartedly refused to deal with zero-hours contracts, blacklisting, payday loans and the high cost of credit, but they are unnecessarily piling regulations on to the trade unions.
Is not my hon. Friend’s point the fact that the Government do not want to regulate people such as Lynton Crosby, yet do want to punish trade unions, whose only sin is to represent the ordinary working person? The only things they have ever campaigned for are people’s right to work, the ending of zero-hours contracts, decent pay and conditions, and decent standards. They are being hit, yet all the rich lobbyists such as Lynton Crosby are allowed to get off scot free.
My hon. Friend tempts me to stray from the amendments, but she is absolutely right. Week after week, the Prime Minister tells us at Prime Minister’s questions how wonderful the car industry is. The car industry in this country was saved by a partnership of people who owned the car industry, the trade unions and the work force all working together. The industry survived and is now in a healthy position—all credit to all those involved.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on outlining why the unions are being singled out. If the issue is fairness, should not shareholders of every company be balloted every time approaches are made to the Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why I am so concerned that clause 36 has been added to this part of the Bill without discussion or proper consultation. There are already strict legislative mechanisms to look after trade union membership, but none at all to regulate shareholders or indeed members of the Conservative party. The fact that that party will not say how many members it has shows that we need regulation for that issue as well.
Could not the shadow Minister answer our hon. Friend Mr Hamilton in this way? If on a lobbying Bill we are allowed to add in stuff about charities and trade unions, could not our hon. Friend produce another part to the Bill that addressed the issue he raises about shareholders? Obviously, that would be in order—anything can be added. Hon. Members from across the House could add stuff on child care, foreign policy or the Government’s war-making powers. Bringing forward a Bill and bolting on a part such as this at a very late stage is an abuse. It is surely not in order.
The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that shareholder registers are much more highly regulated than union registers. That is one reason why we need to see the changes.
I do not think that shareholders are balloted on remuneration; they do not have much ability to stop remuneration packages. They are not balloted on political donations or the overall direction of the company. In fact, individual shareholders in businesses are very weak indeed.
At least when everybody is balloted on anything to do with trade union membership, it is completely and utterly transparent because it is already regulated. That is why we do not need this part of the Bill; trade unions are rather heavily regulated already.
I move on to amendment 104, on the membership audit certificate. The Bill states that a union must send any membership audit certificate in relation to the annual reporting period to the certification officer at the same time as the trade union annual report. That may be good and well, but there is absolutely no natural justice for the trade union itself; that point has been made forcefully by the National Union of Teachers. What if the membership certificate is challengeable? It would not be correct for a document of such magnitude to be delivered to the certification officer, with all their new regulatory, enforcement and investigatory powers, without allowing the trade union an opportunity to appeal what the certificate says.
There are no mechanisms at this stage for the union to make representations to the certification officer on the content of the certificate. That does not seem to be a proper process of natural justice or, indeed, fairness. The methods that assurers will follow to determine a membership audit certificate are not yet known. Moreover, given that there is already a well-established body of law covering the membership lists of trade unions, there should be a proper mechanism to appeal or challenge a certificate.
In the absence of a clear process, trade unions should have the right to challenge the certification officer’s acceptance of a membership audit certificate. This should involve a pause in publication and the right for the union to make representations on the content of the certificate, with ultimately, perhaps, an appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, where qualified judges can make a determination that any qualifications on an audit certificate are valid and appropriate. The amendment would pause the sending of a membership audit certificate to the certification officer if the trade union is appealing the certificate or has indicated to the certification officer that he should not accept the certificate and the trade union will be appealing its content through a process to be determined. That is a fair and reasonable way to uphold natural justice and provide a degree of certainty in the system. I hope that the Minister will consider the amendment.
Since the Government have been unable to justify what this part of the Bill is trying to achieve and will not even tell us their party’s own membership levels, we must start from a position of determining whether the existing system is working. The Opposition will do that work for the Government if they are not willing to do it. As Mr Djanogly said, since the mid-1980s every trade union has been under a duty to compile and maintain a register of the names and addresses of its members. That duty is provided for in section 24 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Under that Act, a trade union has a duty to maintain a register of names and addresses of its members and a duty,
“so far as reasonably practicable”, to ensure that entries in the register are kept up to date. Section 24 also provides that a union must allow any member, on reasonable notice, to ascertain whether the register contains an entry relating to him or her and, if requested, supply a copy of any such entry. This means that the trade union has an existing obligation in law to ensure that its records are accurate.
The existing law specifies that there is an obligation to remove from the register the names of those no longer wishing to be members, that the primary responsibility for informing a union of a change of address is that of the member—I hope that hon. Members remember that part, in particular—and that there is a duty to secure an accurate register
“so far as reasonably practicable”, which permits a margin of error. The remedy for failure to comply with these requirements is by way of complaint to the certification officer or the courts. Section 25 of the Act states:
“A member of a trade union who claims that the union has failed to comply with any of the requirements of section 24…may apply to the Certification Officer for a declaration to that effect.”
The main thrust of amendment 103 is that, in our view, clause 36 is without foundation and encourages vexatious inquiries for no purpose. I also contend that it will not make membership lists any more accurate. I will be interested to hear whether the Minister has any evidence whatsoever that demonstrates that overlaying this law on to the existing law will make trade unions’ membership lists any more accurate.
“It will require trade unions visibly to demonstrate that they know who their members are and can contact them. The principle that unions must be able to contact their members”— this is key—
“is well established in legislation.”—[Hansard, 3 September 2013; Vol. 184, c. 567.]
He is right; it is well established in law already. The facts bear this out, and I will give some of them to highlight how detailed membership information already is, as shown by the extensive annual reports published on the certification officer’s website. First, the certification officer’s annual report for 2012-13 says that 166 trade unions submitted returns—not membership lists but returns—recording a total of 7,197,415 members, a figure that does not appear to be inaccurate, compared with 7,261,210 in the previous year: again, a very exact figure. The largest reduction in membership was in the construction sector, which perhaps says more about the Government’s policies than trade union membership.
Secondly, the annual return has to include a copy of the auditor’s report on the accounts, allowing the certification officer to compare revenue from dues with the numbers reported. In 2012-13, the last full year for which returns have been published on the certification officer’s website, the returns showed that income from members increased by 1.3% to £873 million. The returns also show that the total number of contributing members was about 90.5% of the total membership, compared with 89.4% in the preceding year. There are a number of detailed reasons why those figures differ, but to go into them would rule me out of order. As I am trying to demonstrate, the information is already available in the public domain for anyone to dig into. It is on the certification officer’s website, transposed from the annual reports of each of the 166 trade unions that submitted their returns. I would think that any reasonably independent person looking at those publicly available reports would agree that the Government already have extensive information-gathering powers on the finances and membership of trade unions.
Significantly, in 2012-13 not a single trade union member lodged a complaint with the certification officer about the maintenance of the register’s names and addresses.
The hon. Gentleman says that no one made a complaint. Can that not be turned around? If members of the public suffer when a service is removed because of a fraudulent union vote and they cannot go about their daily work, why should only members of the union be able to complain about that and ask for an investigation?
Members of the public are suffering not because of the trade unions but because of the policies of the Government. While the hon. Gentleman continues to attack ordinary working people up and down this country, people will be looking at this at home and thinking how out of touch this Government are.
I repeat that in 2012-13, significantly, not a single trade union member out of the 7,197,415 members registered with the certification officer made one complaint to him about the maintenance of the registers of members’ names and addresses—that is, not one complaint from nearly 7.2 million people. Let me emphasise that the trade unions and the certification officer work very closely together because they have a mutual interest in ensuring that processes are accurate and transparent. The certification officer’s own figures bear this out, and it is worth recording them; it is a shame that the hon. Gentleman does not have a piece of paper and a pen to write them down. Some of the figures may shock Members because they reaffirm how much of this Bill is completely ideologically driven and total and utter nonsense.
In the past five years, the certification officer has had no complaints to adjudicate on from, if we take the figure of 7.2 million, a total of nearly 40 million people on the membership registers. In fact, he has had only six complaints since 2000. Five of those were dismissed and he did not even issue a declaration on the sixth. Only 10 complaints have gone to a decision since 1987.
I keep giving way to the hon. Gentleman to be polite, but his interventions are complete nonsense. We are talking about 7 million to 12 million people being on the registers of trade union members every single year going back to 1987. That information is verifiable under current legislation and publicly available on the certification officer’s website. Yet all the hon. Gentleman can say is that there is a problem. Why do we need this Bill to go beyond the existing legislation? I am happy to give way to him again if he wants to tell me, in no more than one intervention, why part 3 and clause 36 are necessary.
People who are not members of a union may have a complaint against, for instance, a vote that is taken, and therefore a proper investigation procedure is needed.
That has absolutely nothing to do with the registration of 7.2 million trade union members. If an individual member of a trade union on that list has a complaint, I do not see any reason why they would not raise it.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the legal strictures on trade unions with regard to balloting are among the tightest in the world; they are certainly the tightest in the European Union. I can think of one ballot for industrial action that was ruled illegal because a comma was in the wrong place. The idea that trade unions—this is the notion suggested by Mr Djanogly—are conducting fraudulent ballots left, right and centre is simply illusory.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are getting to the crux of the issue, because it is becoming clear exactly why this part has been included in the Bill. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the accuracy or otherwise of the membership lists of trade unions. If the Committee does not believe me, it should listen to Lord Tyler, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on constitutional affairs, who said that one explanation for this part of the Bill is the role that some unions play in the Labour party:
“The third arm of the Bill is about ensuring that trade unions have accurate membership lists. We will listen carefully to what people have to say about how the detail of this is set up, but the principle seems beyond dispute. The membership numbers of a trade union have a bearing on how much money they can give to a political party through their political funds. In this sense, the trade unions have a unique role in UK politics. It is therefore important for transparency’s sake that the membership lists are accurate.”
I agree with Lord Tyler that it is important that the lists are accurate, but they are already heavily regulated in law. I think this has more to do with the Government’s obsession with the Labour party and trade unions than with legislating to help hard-working, ordinary people.
I had hoped that we would get an explanation as to why this part of the Bill is essential. If the only argument that can be made is that the public should be able to complain about a controversial ballot, surely if it was that controversial it would be taken up by the trade union movement and a trade unionist would object to it rather than wait for a member of the public to do so.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. No general secretary of a trade union, whether it is affiliated to the Labour party or not, would take strike action on the basis of a 51:49% vote of its membership. It would also be concerned about the legality of its membership list if any of it was found to be inaccurate, but the point is that legislation on the accuracy of membership lists already exists. It is in the union’s best interests—this has nothing to do with strike action—to have and maintain accurate membership lists, because it wants to communicate with its members, and it is also in the members’ interests to ensure that the unions have accurate details.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill was supposed to deal with moneys being exchanged so that people could pursue personal agendas to, in effect, line their pockets? We have heard about lobbying scandals, but the Bill was never intended to cover trade union members who write to their local MPs to say, “I don’t agree with zero-hours contracts,” or, “My pay is absolutely rubbish; could you please fight for my pay and my terms and conditions?” That is not what the Bill was meant to be designed for, yet it is being used as a weapon to hit the ordinary working person.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am not even sure whether Government Members have read amendment 103, because it agrees with the need for a process, but only if a proper complaint is made and verified and the certification officer decides that the process has to be followed. There is nothing wrong with that. It is incredibly transparent.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the very small number of complaints made to the certification officer. I have in my hand the text of a speech that was given at a conference that I organised for trade unions and at which the certification officer spoke. The certification officer had done an analysis of complaints and, importantly, highlighted a small number of cases. He found that
“some of the allegations are clearly made with a view to cause problems for the union and not necessarily because of concern for the member’s interests”, and that
“some of the allegations of irregularities come from those involved in the irregularities”.
There was nothing of any substance in most of the complaints made.
My hon. Friend is right. Our amendment would allow people who have a proper complaint about a trade union’s membership list to make it through the normal channels, and the certification officer would then determine whether the complaint was vexatious or had merit before, on top of all that, deciding whether to instigate a process. If people wish to make legitimate complaints about a trade union’s membership, this Bill gives them a mechanism to do so, but our proposal is that they should be able to do so only if the professionalism of the certification officer proves that that process it is required. Given that there have been only 10 complaints since 1987, I think the certification officer is pretty wily in determining what is and what is not a vexatious claim.
It is interesting that my hon. Friend has gone back to 1987, because the root of the original establishment of this law in the 1980s was a direct political attempt by the then Conservative Government to get trade union members to undermine their own union. There was a backlash after the miners’ strike when the then Government instigated the setting up of the scab unit to try to undermine the trade union activities of the National Union of Mineworkers.
The issue here is that only a small number of people complain to a certification officer. Does my hon. Friend know—if the Minister were listening, she might be able to answer as well—whether there is any evidence that the certification officer has raised concerns? Has he said that this is not working and that we need to change it? My understanding is that that has never happened.
The trade unions have complied with the legislation, with bells on, every single year since it was introduced in the mid-’80s, and the published figures are available to the public from the certification office. As I have said, the TUC made a freedom of information request to the certification officer asking whether he had recommended a change in the law to the Government, and he replied that no discussions had taken place. That underlines my hon. Friend’s point.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and compelling speech. I am tempted, as the organiser of the highly successful 1985 political fund ballots, to venture into all our yesterdays, but I will limit myself to one question. He is telling us that there have been no complaints whatsoever, yet the lobbying Bill has a big part on trade unions. Has he noticed that, although complaints have been made over and over again about lobbying, big business, money and sleaze, they do not appear in a Bill that is called the lobbying Bill, and that something about which there have been no complaints has a big section in it? Is he able to explain that to me?
I am delighted that this Committee sitting has allowed the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee a little walk down memory lane with regard to his organisation of ballots in the mid-’80s. He is right that there is no compelling evidence. Of the hundreds and hundreds of e-mails I have received from constituents about the Bill, not one has mentioned part 3, because the public are concerned with lobbying, which is what this Bill was supposed to address.
As I was saying, only 10 complaints had gone to a decision since 1987. As my hon. Friends have suggested in their interventions, we must wonder whether the certification officer needs any of these powers, given the level of activity there is on membership lists. Indeed, the certification officer has less work to do in this particular area than the Leader of the House has in counting support for the Bill. People will be asking themselves whether the powers are unnecessary and disproportionate, and the answer is clearly yes.
Let us reflect again on what the Leader of the House said on Second Reading:
“All we are doing is asking unions to provide an annual assurance that they are doing everything that they can to ensure that they know who their members are and how to contact them.”—[Hansard, 3 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 185.]
That is almost a one-paragraph description of the current legislation that trade unions abide by, including the Data Protection Act and their responsibilities to the Information Commissioner’s Office. The current law prescribes exactly that. It says that trade unions should ensure that they do all that is—we will come back to this terminology again—“reasonably practicable” to maintain their membership lists.
While the Government trumpet the slashing of red tape for business, as my hon. Friend Mr McKenzie said—and for “slashing red tape” read “demolishing workers’ rights back to what they were in Victorian times”—they are imposing a completely unnecessary burden on trade unions to resolve a problem that does not exist. Indeed, officials at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills cannot tell us what the problem is.
Amendment 103, with consequential amendment 121, would result in part 3 of the Bill coming into force only if a complaint was received and verified by the certification officer as a valid compliant, and if the certification officer felt that a membership certificate process was required. That goes back to the intervention of my hon. Friend Mr Doran. The trade unions have absolutely nothing to hide. The amendment would mean that part 3 would come into force only if a verifiable and non-vexatious claim came forward.
Is there not a legal contradiction in the Bill? A trade union has a duty under the Data Protection Act to keep in its records, but not to divulge, personal and private details relating to each member. If the Bill is passed, it will give the certification officer, the certification officer’s staff and the new assurers access to that information. That is a huge contradiction and I believe that it contravenes European law. Should we not consider that at the first possible opportunity?
My hon. Friend is right that there are contradictions with the Data Protection Act and an inconsistency with articles 8 and 11 of the European convention on human rights. Those matters will come up when we discuss clause 37 and the cluster of amendments to it. Those inconsistencies highlight the way in which part 3 has been completely rushed through, without any proper consultation or dialogue with the people who are involved. There is also no identifiable problem that will be resolved.
My hon. Friend Mr Wright has just informed me that, as of 1.35 pm this afternoon, the Vote Office still did not have an impact assessment or a response to the consultation. [Interruption.] The Minister might say that that is not correct, but that information must be available to Members. If it is available, I wonder whether the Minister’s office could photocopy two dozen copies and pass them around.
It is extremely important with Bills of this nature that there is consultation with all parties that could be affected. Part 3 was introduced in July without any prior notification. As my hon. Friend Mr Allen said, there have been only eight working days since then. There has been a lack of consultation and there might not have been any. We have received legal advice that, because this is being done without prior consultation, it could violate the rights to privacy and freedom of association that are enshrined in the European convention on human rights. What is my hon. Friend’s view of that?
There is a very strong view that part 3 contravenes the European convention on human rights. The Committee will discuss that in some detail when it considers clause 37. That just shows how part 3 is being rushed through.
I say to the Minister that I am happy to pass around a hat so that Opposition Members who want to see the impact assessment can pay for the photocopying and so that her office does not have to waste paper. Perhaps she could come to the Dispatch Box and tell us whether it is available.
I will happily explain. The assessment has been in the public domain for more than eight days on gov.uk. My understanding is that it has been sent to the Vote Office, but we are investigating whether there has been a problem in communication.
Problems of communication are not the responsibility of the Opposition. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool, the staff in my office in Edinburgh and the office of the shadow Business Secretary have been searching for the impact assessment. I think that the Minister might be referring to the equality assessment, not the impact assessment. We will wait for it to be photocopied and handed round.
When my hon. Friend gets an impact assessment, would he mind popping one over to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, because we are meant to be doing some of the scrutiny of the Bill?
I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that although he has been searching so hard for the impact assessment, he clearly has not looked on gov.uk, which one might have expected would be an obvious place to look.
I happily accept that it should be in the Vote Office. We are looking into that now.
I have looked at the pages of the gov.uk website that relate to the Bill incessantly over the past week or so. The only thing I have been able to find is the equality assessment for the Bill. As far as I am aware, the impact assessment is not there. I am not trying to be difficult with the Minister. If it has been published on the website, we would certainly be talking about its contents.
On process and transparency, will the hon. Gentleman advise the Committee who drafted the Opposition amendments? Was it the unions that gave them to him? If so, which unions, or was it union-paid lawyers? That should be reported for the purposes of transparency.
That kind of intervention is pathetic. Let me put it on the record, in front of the Committee and the country, that I drafted all the Opposition amendments personally because I take an interest in the Bill and it is part of my shadow ministerial portfolio. I did every single bit of the work myself. I also refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have a £2,000 constituency development programme with the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. That is as far as my responsibilities go in declaring such issues.
If the hon. Member for Huntingdon would like a crash course on how to write amendments, I would be happy to meet him this evening. Perhaps he could then write some amendments to make the Bill better. All I would need to do is show him how to spell the word “delete”. That would certainly make the Bill better. [Interruption.] The Government Whip chunters that we should have declared our interests at the start. He will not even tell us how many members the Conservative party has, never mind anything to do with the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. We are absolutely transparent and people can look at my entry.
Given that my hon. Friend has been so busy drafting his amendments, he might not have heard all the proceedings over the past two days. I advise him to be very careful about offering to draft amendments for Mr Djanogly, because he may end up becoming a lobbyist under the definition in the Bill. As Mr Davis said the other day, he could end up with the IPSA of lobbying looking at what he is doing. I therefore advise him to tread carefully.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend intervened, because it allowed me to look at the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Huntingdon cannot draft his own amendments and would like a crash course from me, given that he received a £21,406 donation from a legal firm only a few years ago. Perhaps it is lobbying him about the Bill. Perhaps he would like to stand up and correct the record.
I forget where we were, but I will go back to discussing amendment 103 and consequential amendment 121. Amendment 103 would prevent vexatious claims. The Lib Dem Minister should think about that carefully. The principle behind introducing the draconian fee of £1,250 for people who want to seek justice through an employment tribunal was that it would prevent vexatious claims. A Bill that deals with trade union membership lists should therefore deal with the fact that vexatious claims might be made to the certification officer. The amendment would resolve that by giving the certification officer the power to consider whether vexatious claims had been made.
Secondly, the amendment would prevent third parties from submitting unwarranted queries. Interestingly, third party submissions are mentioned in the consultation but not in the Bill. I wonder whether the Minister could address that point when she comes to the Dispatch Box. The amendment would reduce unnecessary costs for trade unions. The Government parties tend to forget that any additional costs for trade unions from draconian legislation—there is no evidence for the Bill and it does not resolve any identifiable problem—is merely pushed on to the 7.2 million members, whose membership fees are then increased.. Any additional costs hit ordinary workers who are already engulfed by the Government’s cost-of-living crisis.
The amendment would give the certification officer a mechanism to take complaints—he must ensure that they are verified as competent and of a sufficiently serious nature to warrant the commencement of the complicated process.
Does that measure not confirm to the country at large that the Government are not bothered about the ordinary person’s living standards, and that the only people they are concerned about are the rich and powerful?
My hon. Friend makes the point for me, but it is true that the 7.2 million trade union members will be worse off as a result of the measure, because the burden of any significant additional costs on trade unions from duplicate legislation—they already conform through the Data Protection Act and the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992—will be passed on to the membership in the form of membership fees.
I therefore ask the Minister to answer a number of questions on this group of amendments. Has the certification officer asked for the additional powers? Has the certification officer approached the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to say that those powers are necessary, and that he would like the Government to legislate to ensure they are introduced? Has DBIS consulted the certification office, trade unions and other relevant organisations on whether the powers are required and, if so, why? Have there been meetings between certification office and DBIS officials on the subject at which anyone described a need for a problem to be resolved? Have the Government considered the two-out, one-in regulation policy, or demonstrated what measures will be removed to alleviate the burden of regulation on trade unions? Lastly, will the Minister give the certification officer additional resources to deal with the problem? If the answer is yes, there will also be an onus on trade unions to find additional resources.
Amendment 106, on additional resources, is fairly standard and self-explanatory. The new bureaucratic process will be costly for trade unions, and those costs will ultimately be passed on to the trade union membership. At a time when we should do all we can to encourage a healthy trade union membership in the UK, we must not put the burden of this ideologically driven policy on to those hard-working members. Under the amendment, a charge to cover the costs of production can be levied. There is a reasonable charge for accessing Companies House information on companies—the hon. Member for Huntingdon is interested in those regulations. That principle should be continued in the Bill. I believe the charge is £1 or £2 to access basic information from Companies House. The amendment would make the Bill consistent with section 30(6) of the 1992 Act—this has been discussed at great length by my hon. Friends—which states:
“Where a member who makes a request for access to a union’s accounting records is informed by the union, before any arrangements are made in pursuance of the request…(a)…of the union’s intention to charge for allowing him to inspect the records to which the request relates, for allowing him to take copies of, or extracts from, those records or for supplying any such copies, and…(b)…of the principles in accordance with which its charges will be determined…then, where the union complies with the request, he is liable to pay the union on demand such amount, not exceeding the reasonable administrative expenses incurred by the union in complying with the request, as is determined in accordance with those principles.”
Clause 36 is barely consistent with the 1992 Act. The amendment is a way of resolving that and other inconsistencies.
“It is a Bill that the Government should be ashamed of. It is incompetent. It is rushed. It has been developed in a high-level meeting between the Prime Minister and his deputy, but with no other consultation. It is a sop to vested interests, an illiberal attack on democratic debate and involvement, and a cheap, partisan and cynical misuse of the legislative process for the Government’s own ends.”—[Hansard, 3 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 199.]
The Bill is a partisan attack. Clause 36 and the rest of part 3 of the Bill are completely and utterly unnecessary. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister forget that the people they attack are the people who deliver the mail, serve in the shops, teach our children, care for the sick, look after the elderly, clean our streets, assemble our cars and build our bridges. They deserve better than to be subjected to another piece of the Tory ideological jigsaw.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should say that the amendments are narrowly drafted. I know that hon. Members, when they take part, will not just have a general debate on part 3. That is quite important.
I declare any interests I have in the debate arising from my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Essentially, the question on amendment 103 is whether we tweak the existing system for an automatic annual union membership auditing and inspection regime, or, as Labour wants, we tweak the system in much the same way as the Government propose but so that it comes into play only if a complaint is made under the existing rules. I support the part 3 and clause 36 proposals to aid the verification of union membership. The question is how far the measures should go. On listening to Opposition Members on Second Reading, one might have thought that part 3 constituted a massive attack on union rights, or at least a vehicle for what Ms Eagle, the shadow Leader of the House, has called “cheap” and “partisan” attacks.
The Bill is nothing of the kind, as is immediately apparent when one looks through the Opposition amendments. Their proposals are mainly low-key and technical, and not political. Admittedly, taken in the round, the Labour amendments could be seen as obstructive amendments that seek either to stymie the role of the certification officer or at least to keep him in his existing box, which is why they should be opposed.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that, when the Prime Minister said that the next big scandal to break out in British politics would be lobbying—all hon. Members agreed with him—the Bill was what he envisaged? With all the problems and challenges the country has, does the hon. Gentleman believe that this little piece of legislation is necessary?
I will come to the hon. Lady’s point— I might agree to an extent with some of what she says.
Let us put the measures in context. An emergency motion on the Bill, which was moved by Unison at the TUC conference, has called for an investigation of a policy of non-co-operation with the Bill. Considering the Opposition amendments, that is way over the top, particularly in relation to the part 3 proposals.
On the other hand, despite the Labour smokescreen, the part 3 provisions are something of a missed opportunity to reform the certification officer role, which has long been in need of reform. The key point is that the certification officer is not a true regulator of unions, as it should be. Rather, as Ian Murray has said, it is like Companies
House. It checks that filings are made, but does not look at what is contained in those filings. There is a limited power of investigation, but only in relation to administrative matters.
Therefore, when I look somewhat more charitably at amendment 103, I note that it gives us the chance to debate what the underlying role of the certification officer should be, and to ask what is the purpose of the records kept by unions. Given the surprising reticence of the Government to set out their answers in much detail to date, the amendment serves a useful purpose.
The clause 36 provisions effectively retain the status quo—that originally created via the Trade Union Act 1984 and replicated in the 1992 Act. One has to look only at the obscure clause numbering in the Bill—it proposes new sections 24ZA to 24ZK—to realise that it is high time properly to review the legislation and, in effect, to start from scratch.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that trade unions are one of the most highly regulated institutions in the country—far more so than, say, political parties, which do not have to produce the kind of information the Bill would require? Does he accept that that is because of the ideological wish, from certain people involved in politics, to regulate trade unions highly? That sits ill at ease with some of the comments made regularly by Government Members about cutting red tape.
I actually think the opposite. I will be upfront about this. In the previous Parliament I did a lot of work on regulatory issues—the Companies Act 2006 and the Legal Services Act 2007, which was a major piece of legislation. That work was done, for the most part, on a consensual basis by the two sides of the House, and some pretty good laws were passed. My point is that the trade union laws were passed in the mid-1980s and are in serious need of reform and review.
The hon. Gentleman says that the law is in need of review and change, but can he answer one simple question? What is the problem that these amendments and provisions are seeking to address? That is not clear me.
I answered that specifically in reply to a question put by Ian Murray, the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. I have to say that one does wonder why we are missing this opportunity for reform; I am not sure. Perhaps it is because the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is packed with Liberal Democrat Ministers. Who knows? Perhaps it is the Government’s more general reluctance to look at legislation governing unions and industrial relations. In any event, the toothless nature of the certification officer remains, despite so much having changed since 1984. For example, on the membership register, in the mid-1980s membership records were for the most part probably kept on paper. Official management and database IT systems were not very developed. E-mail did not exist for everyday use and communications with members and voting had to be in person or by post. Of course, postal voting at that time was seen as a novel idea to be used against the intimidation of members at the time of union votes—union intimidation being rife at the time.
There is another key difference between then and now. Unions are, in general, becoming fewer in number, but far larger and more general than in the 1980s.
Unison and Unite now account for approximately 40% of total union membership. As such, it follows that the larger unions are becoming increasingly powerful politically and economically, and with power comes responsibility and the duty to be accountable. We can make a comparison with companies and the difference between how private and public companies are regulated. It is therefore right that union obligations to administrate themselves correctly, such as membership records, are subject to a suitable level of oversight and scrutiny, and the clause provides for that. I note that the Labour party seems to accept the number of 10,000 as appropriate for the higher level of regulation to apply.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Will he answer the question I asked my hon. Friend on the Front Bench? If there is such a problem, why has the certification officer not raised it? Has he come to the House and said, “I’m really not happy because the unions are not staying within the remit”? Has that been the case? I do not believe it has.
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the last time I visited the certification office was more than half a dozen years ago, so I am not totally up on what the latest one is thinking. However, from my experience of looking into the matter in detail—the regulations and laws have not changed—I know that the certification office has very limited powers. In fact, most people would not even see it as a regulator; rather, as I said, it is more like a Companies House collection box than anything else.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is being very generous. Regarding his involvement with the certification officer, albeit several years ago, does he have any evidence that the current membership figures for trade unions are incorrect and therefore require the change in law that is being suggested?
That is not an issue I have investigated. As I said, complaints emanate from members of unions, not from people outside unions, and I think that that is the wrong way to be going about such an issue.
Let us step back and look at the clause in the round. There is a fundamental question which, to be fair, was picked up by the Opposition on Second Reading and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South today, and it is implied by amendment 103: we need better clarification from the Government on the intention of these clauses.
In the 1983 Government Green Paper, it was specifically claimed that decisions made by unions could be contrary to the wishes of their members and that union leaders often appeared not to be responsible to their members. The then Government made the case that legislation could limit malpractice, such as ballot rigging and forgery.
What, therefore, are we trying to do with improved membership registers? Are we concerned about the validity of strike ballots where key public services, such as London trains, are disrupted by a simple majority of an overall minority of members voting? Is there concern that ballot rigging is still going on because of poor membership records? Let us remember that the certification officer has very limited powers in such situations, and that the few powers he does have can be triggered only by existing union members, not by the public who are unable to get to work.
The Chair said that we were perhaps veering off the subject, but I have to come back to the serious allegations the hon. Gentleman is making. If someone makes serious allegations in the House, they should be big enough to present evidence. Where has there been evidence of ballot rigging in the trade union movement? The trade union movement is an extremely transparent and democratic organisation.
The hon. Gentleman is clearly not listening to what I have been saying. I have not been saying that there has been ballot rigging. In fact, in some ways I think I am helping his case by saying that we need to look more carefully at the purpose behind the clause. This would be a good opportunity for the Government to give at least a sense of direction on part 3 about their intentions on strike balloting. Perhaps that purpose is related to party funding, given that the previous part of the Bill relates to election funding. If that is so, why are we not giving the certification officer the power to check that the political opt-out is clearly stated on the union membership application form—that has clearly not always been the case—let alone going the further step, as suggested by the Leader of the Opposition no less, of reversing the position to an opt-in?
Despite the Opposition’s position being muddied following the Leader of the Opposition’s speech at this week’s TUC conference, why are the Opposition not taking this opportunity to amend the Bill to that effect? This is a pressing issue, not least because the majority of union members do not even vote for the Labour party. Even if such reform needs more time to be formulated, why cannot the Government indicate their intentions for party funding as a result of improved membership records?
The clause deals specifically with auditing membership numbers, but what about overseeing matters in the context of the return as a whole, let alone dealing with issues of client care or quality of service? The provisions do not even tighten up the definition of what membership means, which would be helpful, if that is what is to be audited.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is reeling off a list of potential obligations on a trade union with regard to its members. Does he not think that if a trade union was not compliant with obligations under customer service and so on, the member would just simply leave?
Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example. If we are to have the provision to audit members, we should know what “member” means. This is a fundamental omission, as was shown with the miners’ compensation scheme.
In that situation, certain unions created a new class of “associate membership”, with no rights other than the right for the claimants to be referred to the union-picked no win, no fee lawyers, from whom the unions then took a kickback commission. The scam was uncovered and the lawyers were heavily penalised by their regulators. However, not—
Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman some leeway, but if he looks—as I know he has: he is a very skilful Member—he will see that this is a narrowly drafted clause. Will he please now restrict himself to the amendments and the duty to provide membership audit certificates, and not give a long history of the trade union movement?
Thank you for that clarification, Sir Edward.
The point of amendment 103 is to ask the purpose of the clause, and that is right. If the purpose is to deal with auditing members, perhaps we should be talking about what constitutes a member and what is to be audited. Would it include the associated membership that we saw in the miners compensation scheme, for instance? Should the audit include a description of their rights as members? Alternatively, do we want to know accurately the number of members, so that this can be tied to union political contributions? If so, the Bill might not be as effective as some people think. That is because trade unions have not necessarily been affiliating the same number of members as have been contributing to the political fund. They may affiliate phantom members in order to get more union votes on Labour party matters. I am unsure what effect auditing membership numbers would have in that situation, other than to verify how bizarre Labour’s relationship with the unions can be. Again, however, a sense of direction for future reform from the Government would be helpful.
I support this legislation, because I can see nothing to object to in principle—it basically just repeats and fortifies what has been around since the 1980s. I hope that hon. Members do not take what I have said as anti-union, because I am not anti-union. However, I strongly believe that union law is way behind the times and desperately in need of reform. Can anyone really argue that legislation and procedural regulations passed in the mid 1980s are still adequate now? Although I disagree with Labour’s amendment 103, I appreciate its wider implication of showing up the lack of Government purpose and direction behind these provisions. Given the time the coalition Government have had to formulate policy on these key issues, which have a significant impact on the people of this country, we could and should be doing much better. This is a missed opportunity to reform industrial relations law.
Mr Djanogly, like others, will be aware from when he did his law degree—as I am from when I did mine—that there are three golden principles running through our judicial system that come into play when judges interpret legislation. The first is the mischief rule, which asks what mischief the law was introduced to deal with; the second is the golden rule, which means generously interpreting a piece of legislation; and the third is the literal rule, which means interpreting it literally. That is where I would like to start with the amendment and these provisions.
I hope you will forgive me, Sir Edward, if I digress a little—I will not take up too much time—but we were told that the reason for introducing a lobbying Bill was that there was a significant problem with lobbying in this country. Everyone was talking about the next scandal being lobbying, but we were in fact talking about, for example, somebody being paid—a Member of Parliament, say, or somebody else—to ask questions that are not within the rules. We were also talking about people who have access to Ministers and are able to campaign and lobby for private companies—for example, Lynton Crosby and people like that. What we were talking about was money changing hands and others not knowing what was happening. That was what was meant by the scandalous part of lobbying. As a Member of Parliament, I should not be asking questions in the House or raising issues because somebody is sponsoring me or giving me money to line someone else’s pockets, make a company richer or help it to secure a contract that it should perhaps not have.
“Lobbying” refers to those types of situation; sadly, this Bill does not really deal with any of them. Part 1, which deals with consultant lobbyists, catches only about 1% of those concerned—it would not catch people like Lynton Crosby. Part 2 deals with charities and voluntary organisations. If somebody from a cancer charity comes to speak to me about—
Order. The hon. Lady is introducing her speech. I give a certain latitude, but I know that, as a skilful Member, she will soon get on to audit certification.
I will move on swiftly, Sir Edward.
Let me return to the trade union aspect. The provisions in this Bill have been designed just to cause more bureaucratic headaches for trade unions. All they mean is that trade unions will have to spend more of their members’ money—let us remember that these are the 7.2 million ordinary working people, as my hon. Friend Ian Murray pointed out, who are members of trade unions and pay their subs. The Bill would mean that trade unions had to spend more money on trying to comply with the system. Surely that cannot be right. Trying to put that provision in legislation dealing with lobbying as a whole is completely wrong. It is unfair. What is the mischief that the Government are trying to deal with? The mischief is big money and corporate enterprises, yet this legislation does nothing to address such lobbying. All it does is impose a financial burden on unions that rely solely on subs from their members.
The Government are often accused of being out of touch and only looking after the rich and powerful. Surely it is about time they sent out the message that actually they do care about the ordinary person and are perturbed that their living standards and wages are going down. The Prime Minister was not willing to acknowledge those issues at Prime Minister’s questions. The issue of living conditions was put to him time and again, and he was asked about the living wage, yet he refused to answer or to acknowledge the fact that people’s living standards have gone down. We are talking about the same people who have to pay their trade union subs out of their own pay packets. And before anyone says, “Why are they giving the trade unions their hard-earned money?”, I will tell them the reason. In the workplace, the only person a worker can rely on if things get hard is their trade union representative.
Having left school at 15 and been a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, before going on to found two businesses, I can tell the hon. Lady that small businesses always need to look after their employees, because they rely on them so heavily. If a business gets a good employee, it needs to keep hold of them, so there is a lot more care in the workplace than she is suggesting. Would she accept that?
I accept that there are many responsible employers, small as well as large, but the hon. Gentleman will know that many are not responsible. He must also know that there are workplace situations where people have problems, and we cannot take away from that. For most people, the reason they give their hard-earned money to the trade union movement—it is not compulsory: nobody in the workplace has to be a member if they do not want to—is that if there is a problem in the workplace, they will have someone to go to. We know from our country’s history that, over the years, issues of sex discrimination, equality legislation, and health and safety have often been dealt with by members going to their trade unions.
My hon. Friend is coming to the nub of some of the concerns about the provisions we are debating. Some of the information now being sought is sensitive, personal information, and in some of the workplace situations that she is describing, there is a concern—perceived or, in some cases, actual—about people being victimised because of their association with trade unions or, worse still, blacklisted.
I completely agree with what my hon. Friend says about blacklisting and intimidation.
When people have a problem, they go to their trade union because that is the only body in the workplace that can assist them. Let us remember some of the issues that the trade unions have been arguing for over the years. Conservative Members constantly heap abuse on the unions—they talk about Unite and the other unions—but let me remind the Committee of some of the things the unions have campaigned for throughout their history.
The trade unions campaigned for proper wages. What is wrong with that? What is criminal or immoral about that? When the industrial revolution started, wage levels were very low, given the work that people had to do. Wages have gone up over the years, but even now it is impossible for most people to survive on the minimum wage. The unions are therefore campaigning for a living wage. What is wrong with that? I am proud of the Labour party’s links with the trade unions, and of the fact that we are actively involved with them. At the end of the day, trade unions represent ordinary working people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South said earlier, these are the people who cook and serve the food, who work in shops and who clean our streets, our offices and our toilets. They do the worst possible jobs. They also work in the NHS and the education system.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason for including clause 36 in the Bill is completely transparent? It is clear from the contributions from those on the Government Benches that its purpose is to use up union resources, union time and union funds. It is a veiled attack on the trade unions.
Order. Before the hon. Lady replies to that point, may I suggest that she will want to return to the subject of audit certification?
I will come to that, Sir Edward. The need for certification will cause financial harm to the unions, and we do not need it. It will not deal with the mischief that the legislation on lobbying was supposed to address. All it will do is impose an unfair financial burden on the trade unions, which rely on the subscriptions of ordinary members.
Derisory comments are constantly being made about the trade unions, but it is important to remind ourselves what they are arguing for. I get letters from unions lobbying me. For example, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers contacted me when there was talk of Sunday working during the Olympics. I also get letters from trade unions about pension rights, maternity rights, the minimum wage, health and safety, living conditions and better terms and conditions. What is there to be ashamed of about those things? What is wrong with a body arguing for those things?
Why are Conservative Members always having a go at the unions? They make it sound as though the unions are some kind of sinister organisations, but they are not. They are full of ordinary working people, and they have always fought for working people’s rights. The Conservatives should be championing the trade unions, rather than making derisory remarks about them and insulting them in the Chamber. This legislation is a clear example of their vindictive attitude towards the trade unions. The unions do not have a lot of money in the first place, but what they have will now be wasted on this unnecessary bureaucratic burden. The obligation that the Government are proposing will not deal with the mischief that the lobbying Bill is trying to deal with. That mischief relates to big business, to sinister deals and to cash being passed in underhand ways. That is what we are trying to deal with, but the Bill categorically fails on every single level.
This last part of the Bill illustrates the Government’s pure vindictiveness, and it has no purpose. We should all reject it. All Members of Parliament should vote against this legislation, and particularly against part 3. If Members really care about working people, as they all say they do, they should not allow this additional and unnecessary burden to be imposed on the trade unions. It will not deal with the mischief that the Bill was supposed to address.
It is a real pleasure to follow the impassioned speech of Yasmin Qureshi, although I must point out that no one has a monopoly on caring about working people. I shall to confine my remarks to clause 36.
I have discovered over the past three days that I am probably one of the most optimistic Members of the House, because I believe that the purposes of the Bill are very different from those suggested in some of the narratives that we have been hearing. Clause 36 introduces a clear duty to provide a membership audit certificate. I note with interest that if a union has fewer than 10,000 members, it can self-certify. Only unions with more than that number will need to certify.
I appreciate that there has been a certain amount of jolliness in the Chamber—
Some Members have been teasing the Conservative party about its refusal to publish its membership figures. Clause 36 clearly states that unions with fewer than 10,000 members can self-certify. However, a Conservative party association with more than a certain amount of money will have to send its information to the Electoral Commission. That information will include membership numbers, but if they are below a certain level, there will be no need to send it. This part of the Bill therefore contains very similar provisions to those that are already in place for members of political parties, as well as trade unions.
It has been suggested that no complaints have been made under the present arrangements for a number of years. My hon. Friend Mr Djanogly mentioned the possibility that people who were not union members were unable to make a complaint at the moment. I stand here as a friend of the unions. I am happy to work with them, and I am proud of the union members who come to see me, whether as union members or members of local communities or organisations. A number of members of my family are members of unions. I am also happy to work with the national unions on a range of issues—
I am not actually a member of trade union, and I never have been. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are tempting me to stray from the point. Within a few weeks, however, there will no doubt be an announcement and I will be working closely with one of the national unions, and I might well join it as a result of the work that we do together.
The perception of clause 36 is that it is a massive attack on the trade union movement, but that is not its purpose.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are one of the only European countries that does not have a right to strike. Clause 36 comes on top of a whole range of other pieces of trade union legislation, much of which has been designed to be used in the courts by employers trying to get injunctions to stop strike action. Often, when those cases come before a full court, the employers are unsuccessful, even though they might have been successful in getting the strike stopped at the initial stage. Does the hon. Gentleman think that this clause has been designed to create yet another hurdle for the trade unions to get over before they can take lawful industrial action?
The short answer is no. Clause 36 introduces a duty to provide a membership audit certificate. I genuinely cannot imagine that many of the unions will be bothered by it. The reality is that they all want to know where their members are so that they can communicate with them. Most unions do not send letters out to their members simply asking them to take strike action. They also want to sell them services and to make the union a part of their lives.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I shall pass a membership form to him before the end of the debate. Amendment 103 allows for clause 36 to be implemented. All it does is give the certification officer the power to take out vexatious claims and to decide whether the draconian and expensive measures in the rest of the Bill should be enacted.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Local councils around the country have to confront a number of issues with vexatious claims and are currently struggling under the freedom of information rules introduced by the previous Government. It may well be an issue that needs to be looked at further. It is a law of unintended consequences, however, and if there have been only six complaints in the last 10 years, I cannot imagine that there would have been many vexatious claims.
In most small workplace environments, a large proportion of the employees are not union members. If they are, they are often members of a variety of different unions. Most of those employees do not want to cross a picket line and have no intention of doing so. That can be a real emotional struggle for them; I saw that a lot when I was growing up in Liverpool. If a person is being called out on strike by union members in the area but does not want to strike, I think it is perfectly acceptable for such an employee who is not a union member to be expected not to cross the picket line. However, it is perfectly acceptable for them to question whether the ballot was accurate. There is personal and social pressure put on people and it is understandable.
The person that the hon. Gentleman is talking about has that right now. There is no point in this legislation, because the provisions are already in place: the individual can already do exactly what the hon. Gentleman says. Legislation was deliberately set up that way by Governments in the 1980s to undermine the ability of unions to take industrial action. It is already law; we do not need this new law.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful intervention. I grew up in Liverpool in the 1980s and I remember a great deal of industrial action. I survived. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon said that the purpose of the legislation is to take things back to the 1980s so that that exists as the status quo now. I am not particularly interested in the ideological arguments going back and forth across the Committee. I genuinely believe that the purpose of clause 36 is to help people who feel that they want to make a complaint but cannot. I heard the shadow Minister talk earlier from the Dispatch Box about the possibility of a charge of £1 or £2 being exercised in respect of clause 36. I imagine that most trade unions would hate that because it would probably cost more to administer the charge than it would to send off the certificate.
The basic purpose of clause 36 boils down to transparency; it innocently says that trade unions need to know where their members are. There is a massive reality gap here. We all know from the electoral register, which we deal with every single year in all our walks of life, that the number of people moving in and out of constituencies when they move home is huge.
I am delighted that hon. Members believe that everything I have said is already covered by various legislation. I am even more pleased that they are not objecting to what I have said.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the ’80s, but there has been a great deal of trade union law since that time that deals with all the issues that he has raised. He should take it from me that the particular provision we are debating does not deal with any of the matters with which he was concerned; as I say, the laws governing that already exist.
I am delighted to hear that hon. Members believe that the issues I am raising have already been dealt with. That is fantastic news. However, if those issues are already dealt with, I see no reason for people to be arguing that there is no reason for this part of the Bill; I see no reason to be against it. There seems to be a lot of anger being expressed.
Not all Government Members have an issue with trade unions or trade unionists. Whenever anybody mentions the words “trade union”, it seems as if we have to have an ideological argument between the two sides of the House. I do not agree with that. We should look at the facts, and the facts relating to clause 36 are very simple: there is a duty to provide a membership audit certificate if a union has more than 10,000 members; otherwise people can self-certify.
There is a genuine point—he may or may not have taken it on board—about the big general unions. Because of the changing nature of work and the increasing casualisation of the work force, it is possible for unions to lose as much as 12% of their membership during the course of a year, so they will have to recruit 12% just to stand still. Under those circumstances, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman can imagine, keeping bang-up-to-date records is extremely difficult.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The biggest challenge those unions face—it is perhaps a reason why the Bill might help them focus more resources on the issue—is simply the fact that people move home. It is not a matter of losing members of the trade union movement; it is simply a matter of trade unionists moving house between different areas. That creates a massive turnover. We all have experience of moving house and know we have to pay the Royal Mail a fee to redirect our mail for a year. Moving home is a big issue; it is one of the key problems surrounding the clause. Clause 36 encourages the focusing of more union resources on tackling the problems of membership turnover.
Has the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to look at how much this will cost the trade unions? Does he know how much they will have to spend on this exercise?
The hon. Lady will be delighted to know that I read the impact assessment, so I understand that it will cost approximately 6p per member, which does not seem to be exorbitant. [Interruption.] I am sure we can argue about that when we get to a different part of the Bill, but I am going to keep my remarks focused on clause 36 as our Chairman would like—namely, the duty to provide a membership audit certificate. I keep repeating the point that clause 36 deals with a duty to provide a membership audit certificate. I do not see what the problem is with providing such a certificate. I cannot imagine why the unions would object to it.
The hon. Gentleman is most gracious in taking interventions. He said that he agreed that legislation might already be in place to deal with the problem. His argument was to ask why we should vote against the provisions if they are already in place, but why would he vote for duplication?
I am not voting for duplication. I am going to vote for this part of the Bill. I am being informed that legislation is already in place, but I was probably at school at that time. I would love to accept what the hon. Gentleman and Opposition Members say, but I am not able to trust them. That is why I am going to vote for this part of the Bill. It is nothing personal. It is just that there has been a lot of discussion going back and forth across the Committee, but I like to vote on the facts, and the facts before me today relate to this part of Bill.
I am sure that the Chairman will be grateful to know that I am about to bring my remarks to a close. We should try to reduce some of the rhetoric. This is not an ideological argument and the provisions are not a massive attack on the trade union movement—nobody wants to see that. Trade union members are fantastic members of our society, and the trade unions have been a fantastic vehicle for societal change throughout the ages. I am happy to work with them on a variety of occasions— working alongside them, for example, at charity events in my constituency or when the national unions work on issues that are important to their members such as fair pay, tax transparency or a range of other issues.
It is pleasure to follow Stephen McPartland. He declared himself an optimist about the purposes of this part of the Bill and clause 36 in particular. The problem with the Bill, as well as with this particular provision, is the gap between the declared purposes and the provisions themselves. In clause 36, the problem is that the purposes are not clear at all.
In its confused content and its incompetent and chaotic handling, this whole Bill reminds me of a previous piece of legislation that the Leader of the House introduced—the Health and Social Care Bill. I led the opposition to that Bill. It was a Bill without allies and with a remarkable range of critics that saw Lord Tebbit and the trade unions finding common ground. The Leader of House, when he was Health Secretary, was forced to pause, review and reflect upon that Bill. The same problems with this Bill surely call for the same solution.
Let me now deal specifically with clause 36 and the amendments. My hon. Friend Mr Allen, the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, told us that his Committee had considered the White Paper, the forerunner of the Bill, and that there had been no mention of part 3 or of trade unions. He said that, according to his calculations, this part of the Bill—including clause 36—had been published the day before the summer recess, eight working days before we were required to consider it in Committee today, and he rightly pointed out that the task of scrutinising these provisions would therefore fall to the other House.
I am not prepared to accept that, and the Committee should not be prepared to accept it either. It is part of our duty in a Committee stage such as this to exercise scrutiny in the House of Commons, but we have been unable to do so. We have been unable to do so because of the time scale, because of the lack of any wider consultation, and indeed, as we have heard this afternoon, because of the Government’s failure to provide the Committee even with some of the most basic documentation before asking it to consider the Bill. Such a degree of confusion and incompetence on the part of Ministers is unacceptable.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend’s critique of the legislation and, in particular, with what he is saying about clause 36, but is not the position even worse than he is suggesting? The Government have failed to explain to the House why the changes are necessary in the first place. We have not got a clue what problem they are trying to solve.
I shall respond to my hon. Friend’s intervention in a moment. I want my speech to reflect what has been said in the debate so far, and the point that he has made has already begun to emerge during our discussion of clause 36 and the amendments.
Another point has emerged as well, and it constitutes a direct challenge to Ministers. The front of the Bill bears the following declaration from the Leader of the House:
“In my view the provisions of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill are compatible with the Convention rights.”
Members of Parliament and legal experts outside the House have rightly asked whether article 8 of the convention, in particular, is not confounded by the provisions of clause 36. The clause gives the certification officer, or any investigator whom he may appoint, sweeping powers of access to very personal individual information about trade union members, which could potentially contravene article 8 and the right to privacy. As I think the Committee will appreciate, union members are rightly concerned and sensitive about the issue, given the recent history of blacklisting and discrimination on the basis of trade union membership or activity. What I should like the Minister to do when he responds to the debate—
What I should like the Minister to do when she responds to the debate is give the Committee a commitment that she will publish, or place in the Library of the House, the legal advice on which the Leader of the House’s statement on the front of the Bill is based, so that we can lay that concern to rest.
Let me now turn to the point made by my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne. In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend Ian Murray asked what was the problem with which clause 36, and part 3 as a whole, had been designed to deal. Even Mr Djanogly rightly asked the same question, albeit in different terms. He asked what intention was behind the provisions in clause 36. Our debate so far has clearly shown that there is no evidence of a problem, that there is no public call for these changes, and that there is no principled case for them. We can only conclude that the intention, or the purpose, of the clause is to tighten the legislative leash on trade unions and their ability to take proper, lawful industrial action.
I must inform Ministers that last year industrial action was at an almost record low. The level was very low throughout the 13 Labour years, but last year it was only a quarter of the level that it was in 1996, the last year of the last Tory Government. In other words, four times more days were lost through industrial action in 1996 than was the case last year. Wide-scale industrial action is not a problem in this country, and for that reason any case that might honestly be built and presented on the basis of industrial action would clearly be flawed. My hon. Friends who are members, and active members, of trade unions would certainly agree with that.
I am slightly confused by the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks, given what we have heard from many leading trade unionists about the possibility of strikes over the next six months. Does he not recognise that that poses a sizeable danger to the country’s economy, or is he telling me that the strikes will not happen because what the trade union leaders are saying is a sham?
Indeed so, Sir Edward.
As a former member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the steps, linked to the clause, that any union needs to take before contemplating industrial action are already highly complex. They are legally specified, and they set a number of very high hurdles for any group of trade union members who wish to consider industrial action. As for his general point, it is often the determination of union members to take industrial action if necessary, and as a last resort, that causes employers to see sense, negotiate properly and, in many cases, solve the problems at hand.
Let me sum up the position. The number of days lost to strike action is at a near all-time low. Industrial action is always a last resort. The series of legislative steps that any group of trade union members must take before engaging in lawful industrial action are already highly complex, lengthy and tightly specified in law, but clause 36 will make that specification much tighter, and will make it much more difficult for unions to take such action. As my hon. Friend Katy Clark pointed out, there is no legal right to strike in this country, and any industrial action lays a trade union open to being sued for inducing and encouraging members to breach their employment contracts. It is only the immunity from being sued, which comes from following all the steps specified in existing legislation, that will be made more difficult by the provisions in clause 36.
Too often in recent years, employers—not just large employers such as Balfour Beatty, Serco and London Midland—instead of dealing with the grievance at hand, and instead of consulting, negotiating and discussing the problems that they face with their own employees and dealing with the dispute, have looked for legal ground to try to prevent any industrial action through the law courts. The duty in clause 36 to provide the membership audits and certificates, and the potential investigations on the back of any complaints under the auspices of the certification officer, are likely to make it much easier for employers to find legal grounds and to take legal action to prevent union members from taking proper, legitimate industrial action. Clause 36 will create a mountain of data and paperwork which will be at the fingertips of employers well in advance of any particular risk of industrial action or dispute.
Is that not exactly what the Government intend, so that, apart from causing financial difficulties, this Bill can be used by employers to hit out at employees?
I think my hon. Friend is right, but our problem is that we are having to intuit the intention behind these provisions and this clause because the Government have not supplied evidence of a problem, have not supplied a purpose for these provisions, and have not supplied any reason for this unreasonable tightening of the legislation.
My right hon. Friend talked about legal action being taken against trade unions. The other problem is that an employer has six years in which to take that legal action. I can remember dealing with cases where a legal firm said, “Let the ballot and industrial action go ahead because we then have six years during which, at any point, we can take legal action against the union.”
My hon. Friend has more experience in this area than I have, and he is right to point that out, and he might have gone on to say, “And what a stark disparity with the legal requirements on trade unions to take any industrial action they may have balloted upon within days, not years, and then to give further fresh notice to the employer before the start of that industrial action.” The legislation is already hugely unbalanced and is, as Mr Djanogly argued, ripe for reform—although I think he and I would disagree on the nature of the reform that is required.
The Opposition’s arguments against this clause and my particular objections are clear, and our amendments highlight them. Regardless of what the Government are prepared to say about its purpose now, it is designed to tighten the current legislation binding trade unions. It is designed to make it more difficult for trade unions to take proper legal, legitimate industrial action and in particular for members facing problems in their workplace to stand up to an employer as a last resort and say, “You’re treating us in such an unfair, discriminatory and unacceptable way that we are prepared to take industrial action as a last resort.” If we allow this provision and this part of the Bill to proceed unamended it will become much more difficult for ordinary people as union members in the workplace to stand up for themselves through their union against their employer.
I will restrict my remarks to clause 36 and to supporting our amendments. As we have heard over the past few days, this is a bad Bill and it would be poor legislation. Part 3 and clause 36 have clearly been ill thought out and ill conceived by the Government—but they have clearly thought through what they want to achieve. These measures would achieve their goals, but, unfortunately, they are not the goals a lobbying Bill should set out to achieve.
To compound things, this Bill is being rushed through Parliament at a speed that would make Usain Bolt envious. Opposition Members repeatedly ask, “Why the hurry? Why can’t we take a bit of time to scrutinise this Bill and get it right?” There has been no consultation on the Bill either, which has been highlighted.
My hon. Friend asks, “Why the hurry?” Does he agree that it is because the Government hope to get this Bill on to the statute book so that for 12 months from
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Bill and clause 36 have come under sustained criticism from just about everyone except those on the Government Benches. This part of the Bill has led to my inbox being filled—and, I am sure, other Members’ inboxes, too. The messages I have received have come not only from trade union activists, but from people throughout my constituency who are concerned about what this Bill, and this part of it in particular, will mean for them.
This part of the Bill seeks to change the legal requirements in relation to trade unions’ obligations to keep their lists of members up to date, as if it would somehow be of benefit to unions not to keep their membership records up to date. Trade unions continually communicate with their members, as I know as a trade unionist myself; I continually receive mailings from my trade union. They clearly know who their members are and how to contact them, therefore, so the claims made by Government Members that their records might be incorrect or they might have phantom members are beyond belief.
There are concerns about membership data and security and the possibility of the blacklisting of trade union members. There are data protection issues, therefore, and what about people’s right to privacy? In the 1980s I was employed in the private sector and my employer at that time would have been delighted to get its hands on a list of the trade union members among its employees. Instead, it had to put feelers out and, believe it or not, engage people to take photographs.
My hon. Friend is right; that would be a consequence of this Bill. In the past, unscrupulous employers would go to any lengths to find out which of their employees were trade union members. I recall being photographed entering trade union meetings by my employer. It would have saved a great deal of money if it had been able to get its hands on these lists.
“Reveal your membership,” the unions are told, on the basis of demanding accuracy.
I have made this point previously, but I want to make it again in the context of what my hon. Friend is saying. The Deputy Leader of the House has been seen denying this from a sedentary position, but yesterday he did not adequately respond to a question I asked about the Government’s failure to produce a human rights memorandum on this Bill. If they had produced one, they would have had to address this fundamental question of privacy.
My hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point on the privacy issue. It seems that those on the Government Benches might somehow be surprised to learn that there are still employers who do not welcome trade union membership or activity among their employees, and they would be delighted to have these records at hand. As we have heard, the Conservatives will not reveal how many members they have.
These proposals will mean significant additional bureaucracy for unions. We have heard about the costs of that, and they will escalate considerably for an organisation with 1 million or more members. The Government’s intentions are transparent. As we have heard from Government Members, they want to tie the hands of the trade unions. They want to put a ball and chain around the train unions’ ankles and to hamper their activities. This comes from a Government who said they wanted to cut red tape, and yet here they are imposing it on others.
I have not heard any general objection from the TUC to unions being able to provide regular membership figures to the certification officer. Mr Djanogly, who has now left the Chamber, suggested that the certification officer is toothless, when it has been some six years since he visited the certification officer and he was unable to give any idea as to how many times the certification officer had been challenged for lack of action or for being toothless. After all, we know that the trade unions supply membership lists to ACAS, especially when triggering recognition of a ballot in the workplace. I have often found out that the reluctance to hand over accurate lists comes from the employers; they have refused to supply ACAS with lists of their employees to match things up with the trade unions so that they could verify that they indeed had the membership numbers to trigger a ballot. Trade unions have never held back their membership lists; they are happy to give them over, but only if they have privacy for their members and the assurance that the lists will not be handed over. ACAS, of course, gives them that assurance.
These changes will affect the 149 trade unions, of which, as we know, only about 16 are affiliated to the Labour party. The changes are clearly uncalled for and, as I have said, they are designed to hamper the unions and tie them up with red tape, which the Government have consistently said they want to get rid of. They came into power saying that they would eliminate as much red tape as possible.
The Government are not using the Bill to tackle the real problems of lobbying. Just about every member of the British public is asking what problem this part of the Bill is designed to tackle, and Labour Members have repeatedly asked that question. We are unable to discern the problem that this part is meant to remedy in its entirety. As we have heard, unions already have a statutory duty to maintain a register of members’ names and addresses so far as is reasonably practicable. Many members move house or pass away. The lists are as accurate as membership lists can be, as the trade unions do update them. No membership organisation of any size can ever have a perfect membership list, as such a list will contain errors. It is up to the individual members to make the union aware of changes. How often have we not passed on a change of address, getting around to doing so only later?
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly compelling speech about the deficiencies of clause 36 and he is right to do so, because the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 states clearly that the onus is on the member to tell the trade union that they have changed address. If the member does not tell the union that, the membership list is therefore deficient.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
Recent revelations about blacklisting and everything that is happening in that respect are a worry to many trade union members, who would see these membership lists as being available to be passed around with ease, with all the consequences that that entails. I think that the entire House is united in condemning blacklisting, so why are we being asked to assist the ease by which information can be gathered to continue the practice of blacklisting? If hon. Members had seen the trawls that the people who compile these lists go through, they would realise that we are making it very easy to put a list together, pass it on and make money out of branding other people as “trade union activists” and so on. I ask the Government to reconsider this part of the Bill and to adopt our amendments.
I think we misinterpreted Mr Djanogly, because what he said was extremely supportive. He went to what my hon. Friend Ian Murray described as the crux of the Bill, asking why it is here. The hon. Gentleman was asking his own Front Benchers, “What the hell are we doing?” As my hon. Friend Mr McKenzie and others have asked, what mischief does this part of the Bill seek to address? I really tried to find out what the Government’s thinking is, so I looked at what they said in the consultation paper, which was published in July. The first reason they put forward for this move was as follows:
“As membership organisations, it is important that trade union decisions reflect the will of all their members.”
If that is the case, does it mean that we are now going to legislate in respect of all membership organisations? Sir Edward, you are a member of the Roman Catholic Church and if we are going to do that, we might well introduce legislation to see whether the Catholic Church is following the laity’s views.
Why does this provision apply to trade unions alone? Next, the Government identify trade unions for this special legislation because:
“Trade union activity has the potential to affect the daily lives of members”.
With the greatest respect, so too does the activity of the Roman Catholic Church, the CBI and the Institute of Directors. So why are we focusing on this particular membership organisation? As has been said, the reason is that this legislation is really about trying to impede the operations of the trade unions in this country. Government Members might argue that this measure has minimum cost and minimum imposition of roles and responsibilities on trade unions. The impact study makes an assessment that there will be only 6p of additional cost, although that is still 6p. However, it also says, straightforwardly, that the risks are that this will displace core trade union work. It will do that; trade unions will have to devote their time and energies to this and it will therefore displace their core trade union work of representing their members. So it is about impeding the real role of trade unions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this part of the Bill is unnecessary legislation and that it is just an attack on trade union members going about their daily business and being active trade unionists? It is an attack on ordinary working people standing up for their rights in the workplace.
That is exactly what it is. I am speaking on the clause standing part, as well as to the amendment, Sir Edward, because we have to understand what this clause means. I cannot, for the life of me, interpret it other than in the way my hon. Friend has just done. It is an attack specifically on the role of trade unionists and their rights to fulfil their responsibilities.
We have seen the operation of challenges to membership lists in respect of industrial relations and, in particular, of industrial action being taken and determined by members. The history is that the employers have used the existing legislation and interpreted it so that any minor discrepancy about a membership list is used in a rush to court to seek an injunction to prevent industrial action from taking place. Some examples have been given, but I have been involved in a number of activities associated with trade unions where even though there has been a 99% overwhelming decision in favour of industrial action, one or two members out of thousands have been missed off the ballot and so an injunction has been awarded. Therefore, the industrial action, along with the will of the members, has been prevented from being implemented. We tried to overcome that through legislation in this House—I tried to put such legislation through on three occasions, but it got talked out every time—but we have just overcome it in the courts. We have received a decision in the courts that enables minor infringements not to be taken into account and the decision of the overall will of the members to be acceded to.
However, the Bill opens up a whole new vista of potential legal challenges. As colleagues have said, it relates not only to industrial action, industrial activity, ballots and so on; it could relate to the whole operation of the union. Employers could trawl over membership lists, go off to the certification officer and then we could get to court, where the challenge will be about how the union operates overall. So lawyers will be able to tie up trade unions in legal actions for years to come, preventing them from undertaking what the impact study calls their “core” trade union work of representing members.
I ask Government Members: what is the motivation for this measure? Some of that has leaked out. They have listened to what has happened in recent months—the anger there is among working people about the cuts to their wages, the zero-hour contracts and the undermining of employment rights. People are beginning to react. They do not usually react at the depths of a recession, doing so when they are coming out of one and when their living standards of some are rising. So we are talking about a recovery for the rich but a recession for the rest. That is when people get angry and when industrial action takes place—that is when strikes happen. It is also when trade unions need to be representing their members. So I think this measure is part and parcel of the Government preparing for the potential for industrial activity over this coming period. It is another mechanism by which they will do everything they possibly can to undermine the rights of trade unions and their ability to operate effectively in representing their members. It is so short term, because all it will do is anger people even more and as these impediments build up, although they are relatively minor at first, people will become more angry. Then, we will have wildcat action—action that is uncontrolled—because people are so furious at how they are being treated by their employers in collusion with the Government.
Let me make one final point, because I want to understand. If the argument is that the clause is about ensuring that membership organisations are open, transparent and accurately reflect their members’ views, and if it is about organisations that have an impact on the general life of our society, why does it not refer to the CBI, the Institute of Directors and all the other trade associations? They are membership organisations and they have as much of an effect on the daily lives of our population as trade unions, yet they remain completely unregulated. That portrays to me the in-built bias of this Government against trade unionism and working people. That is why we must vote against clause stand part.
The amendment is moderate, and simply says that if the certification officer identifies a problem we should implement the provision—I have similar amendments on the implementation of the Bill, which we probably will not reach. That is all my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South is saying: if there is a grievance or a problem let us by all means have some action, but not unless a problem is identified. That is a relatively moderate, pragmatic way forward. If the Government do not accept the amendment, that will completely endorse the view that this is bias motivated by prejudice against trade unions and trade unionism.
My hon. Friend is making another compelling speech. He mentions organisations such as the Church, the IOD and the CBI; is he as astonished as I am that while this draconian measure is going through to restrict trade unionism even more in this country the Conservative party will not even tell us how many members it has?
I fear when Governments start seeking to regulate civil society generally. That is what the clause does: it is a step along the path of regulation of wider civil society organisations. What else? The Countryside Alliance? We might be up for that, just to see where the money comes from, but there are a range of organisations whose rights, privileges and privacy we want to be respected for reasons of basic civil liberties. Why are trade unions being singled out in this manner? The Bill is being targeted and comes at a time when the Government are predicting that they will be faced with trade unionists who are very angry about not being able to share in what is supposed to be an economic recovery. It is about the exercise of trade union rights.
My hon. Friend Katy Clark mentioned the legality of the Government’s legislation. Let me be clear that our Governments have been condemned by the International Labour Organisation and other international organisations for two decades now because of their trade union legislation. It is not just about the right to strike; it is about certain basic and fundamental trade union rights. The clause, yet again, imposes further duties that I believe to be completely contrary to ILO conventions. Yet again, this country will be isolated in the world and condemned for its attack on trade union rights, which are incorporated in all those international statutes and conventions as a basic human right.
In summary, that is why I oppose clause stand part and support the moderate, pragmatic amendment. If we reach that stage in our consideration of the Bill, I will discuss the amendments I have proposed, which basically say that if the Government want the legislation—which we do not support—to go forward, they should at have some form of trigger, such as a complaint or concern that has been raised and assessed. If there has been a complaint and there needs to be further action, fair enough. That is not the case at the moment and I think that this is just biased prejudice against trade unions and trade unionism overall.
First, let me say what a compelling speech my hon. Friend John McDonnell just made. He made some strong points—this is about the evisceration of the industrial and political opposition over the next few months because the Government can see some serious problems on the horizon emanating from the policies they are pursuing. They want to neutralise any resistance to those policies and their consequences through the Bill and other measures.
I have a series of questions on this clause that I would like the Minister to deal with. My first question has been asked before, but it is specific. What specific complaints about union record keeping have been made and by whom over the last, say, three years? Secondly, as an addendum to that, what evidence is there that unions are not keeping accurate records? As we have heard before, under the 1992 legislation there is already a duty on trade unions to keep their records up to date. What has changed since then? What enormous problems are associated with trade union record keeping that have led the Government to their current position and to change things in such a radical way?
Thirdly, what assessment has been made of the impact on the privacy of trade union members? I have many constituents, as I am sure we all have, who are members of trade unions but whose employers do not know that. I have had many conversations with constituents over the past three years in which I have said to them that they do not need to inform their employer that they are a member of a trade union and can keep it secret if they are worried about future problems at work. Does the Minister think that the increased access to trade union records and activities will give people in that position any great confidence that their details will remain private, or should they start to worry that all sorts of people, potentially including their employers, might get access to those records and perhaps start to use them against them? The change in the nature of work means that that is an important element of how trade unions and the world of work operate. The days when we had great concentrations of employers, all of whom were often union members, are gone. These days, we often have smaller work forces and only a handful might be trade union members. That group of people might not want their details to be exposed to public view.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that many trade union members, for whatever reason, do not wish their employer to know that they are a member of a trade union but very much value their membership. Does he agree that those members’ concern is that their personal information might get into the hands of their employer and could be used against them in the workplace, particularly for future blacklisting?
That is a very good point. We have all sorts of debates in this place on blacklisting recently; it is a problem that goes back many decades and persists in many sectors today.
My next question for the Minister is whether there has been any assessment specifically of the effect of the future legislation on the sectors of the economy that are particularly casualised. I am thinking of construction, agriculture, hospitality and catering. In construction and agriculture, particularly, the fluid nature of the work force means that it is difficult to keep accurate records of membership.
I have worked for three trade unions in the past and trade unions, more now than at any time in their history, devote enormous resources—as many as they possibly can—to organising records and keeping them up to date. As I said when I intervened on Stephen McPartland, large general unions, particularly Unite and the GMB, can easily lose 12% of their membership, particularly at a time such as this. Their membership tends to stand still because they can recruit another 12% in the same sectors to take the place of those members who have been lost because of jobs being lost, factory closures and so on, but just to stand still they have to recruit 12%. The level of churn means that it is difficult to keep records up to date, no matter how many resources are devoted to record keeping. Of course, up-to-date records are dependent on members informing the union that they have moved house, for instance, or changed occupation. That does not always happen.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on how he is presenting his case. He is correct that unions put a huge amount of resources into trying to keep accurate membership records, especially because of the number of legal challenges that employers take against them in the courts. Does he agree that the changing nature of the work force, with the increase of zero-hours contracts and underemployment that means that people have more than one part-time job, makes it even more difficult for unions to keep accurate records?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. There is also the situation involving payroll companies. If such a company offers to take over all an employer’s payroll responsibilities, the duties to pay pensions, national insurance and sick pay are divested to that payroll company, meaning that that semi-detached element in the workplace is responsible for maintaining many records, which makes keeping everything up to date even more complicated and difficult. Another aspect is the casualisation of the workplace, because there are some sectors of the economy in which full-time permanent employment is almost being abolished. Again, that situation will make it more difficult to comply with the Bill’s strictures.
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point about the difficulty of communicating with trade union members. I have been a branch secretary, so
I know that it is difficult enough to communicate with just a branch. The key aspect of the Government’s motivation in previous legislation has been to address balloting procedures, which I understand to a certain extent, because there is a need to ensure that there is an accurate record of membership when taking a ballot. However, what is sinister about the Bill’s proposals, with reference to the Government’s assessment, is that they are about ensuring that the general public and employers are
“confident that voting papers and other communications are reaching union members”.
The Bill therefore covers a wider range of activities than just balloting, so there could be challenges from employers and others about just whether a trade union had adequately communicated with its members, by post or other means, about any matter.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether any other section of civil society is as heavily regulated as trade unions. Unions will be subject to even more regulation because every piece of communication with members will be covered by statute, which represents an extraordinary intervention into people’s lives.
Will the Minister tell us how the 1992 Act relates to the Bill, and especially to clause 36, because that Act makes provision for keeping accurate and up-to-date records? Will she tell us what has specifically changed since the implementation of that consolidation Act that has brought about an enormous problem that now must be dealt with?
Given the regulation on trade unions’ membership records that already exists, does my hon. Friend agree that unions probably are the most regulated membership organisations in the country and have the most accurate records? What is the need for extra regulation, other than to constrain the legitimate actions of trade unions?
Yes, I am. I am interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman believes in the collective strength of trade unions, and I am sure that he will be known in Dover as Red Charlie after that comment.
The trade unions are subject to enormously heavy regulation, so I do believe in less regulation. Successive Governments have carried out all sorts of investigations into the burdens of regulation on every sector of the economy, but I agree with Mr Djanogly that there should be an investigation into the regulatory burdens on trade unions. As a trade union officer in a past life, I have seen such burdens, and while I would be out of order if I talked about my experiences, they were extraordinary. I suspect that a number of Government Members would be surprised to hear how heavily regulated trade unions are.
While I support trade unions’ use of legitimate economic power, taking the step of using that serious power can have great economic consequences. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that power should be exercised within a framework that has been carefully set out so that the people at the top of trade unions cannot abuse it?
Of course I agree, but there has always been a legal framework for taking industrial action. The idea that anyone ever takes industrial action—not only strike action, but action short of strikes—lightly is a myth. That just does not happen in the real world.
I am told that Charlie Elphicke regularly leads people astray—[Interruption.] I do not mean that; I am joking.
As has been said repeatedly, we were first led to believe that this measure would be a lobbying Bill, but since then parts 2 and 3 have been added. We had been promised a lobbying Bill for three and a half years, but all sorts of things have been bolted on to that. Why was there no consultation paper on not only part 2, which we dealt with yesterday, but part 3 and provisions such as clause 36? Why could not the Government have issued a consultation paper so that people could have contributed to the process, rather than ramming the Bill through in a few days, despite introducing it just before the recess? These measures should have been thought through carefully and a consultation process to which people could contribute should have been held, but that simply did not happen.
I declare an interest as a member of the GMB union, which has funded me in the past, and as secretary of the trade union group of Labour MPs. I wanted to say that because, like most of my colleagues, I am tired of the way in which trade unions are demonised, especially by the Government, who are putting as many obstacles as possible in the way of trade unions carrying out their normal and reasonable functions, as is apparent from part 3 of the Bill. The points that hon. Members have made about this group of amendments, which we have been discussing for some time, are relevant to virtually every other provision, because we need to hear from the Government why part 3 is necessary, which is the point on which I shall focus my speech.
I have had some experience of working with the certification officer. In 1993, when the unions were approaching the 10-year ballot for their political fund, I was appointed by a group of trade unions—more than 30 of them—to run the campaign, along with a colleague, Derek Gladwin, who became Lord Gladwin. Sadly, he is now dead. We ran that operation, balloting more than 6 million trade unionists. I did it in close co-operation with the certification officer and I learned a little about the way in which certification officers operate.
If we look back at the history of the regulation of trade unions, it is fairly clear that trade unions are used to regulation and the requirements of regulation.
My hon. Friend Ian Murray pointed out forcefully the very small number of complaints from members about the processes and about the way in which the unions operated— 10 complaints, I think, since the 1980s. Given the numbers involved, that is remarkable.
It is difficult to answer the question why the Bill is necessary. The first legislation was in 1871. That legalised trade unionism, and it gave unions the option to register as trade unions. The vast majority of the major unions eventually did so. It is interesting that the term “trade union” in those days included employers associations. Somewhere or other that has been lost in all the processes and all the amendments made to the legislation over the years, culminating in the consolidation of trade union and employment law in the 1992 Act, which was referred to earlier.
It is interesting to look at certification officers and how they have seen their role. As I mentioned in an intervention, I organised a conference some years ago at which the certification officer of the time spoke about his functions. As he saw it, his function was to deal with complaints made by members that a trade union had failed to maintain an accurate register of members, and to see that trade unions kept proper accounting records, had their accounts properly audited, and submitted annual returns for the investigation of the financial affairs of trade unions and for ensuring that the statutory requirements concerning the actuarial examination of members’ superannuation schemes were observed. I have not had the time to check the detailed provisions of the 1992 Act, but it seems to me that it encapsulates everything that the Government want to do, and that that is within the existing powers of the certification officer and the system.
We have a major problem in this country, and it is a problem for all the political parties. I believe it is a serious problem and that the country pays a high price for it. For some of our near neighbours, the Germans and the Nordic countries, there are certain areas where all the parties agree, and they are all social and community areas, including rights at work and the operation of trade unions. We have a system where one Government come in and want to rip up everything that has gone before—not just in respect of trade unions, but in many other areas—then another Government come in and do the same in their turn.
I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Employment Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry in 1997 when we came into power. Trade union issues were seriously discussed in the DTI and round the Cabinet table at that time, because we did not want just to take a lurch back. Matters were discussed seriously with the trade unions in advance and they knew what was coming.
It was decided, first, that in any area where a trade union member had the right to ballot, that right would not be removed. That was sacrosanct—a red line. Secondly, it was decided that we needed to review trade union laws and to do so comprehensively. There was no point in putting only our side of the case and banging ahead with the sort of stuff that we are seeing now—Beecroft, as has been mentioned, the constant erosion of workers’ rights and constant efforts to undermine trade unions.
We decided to call in the TUC and the CBI and to ask the director general of the CBI and the general secretary of the TUC, Adair Turner and John Monks, to go away and look at all the issues that needed to be considered. They were asked to come back and tell us what they agreed on, what they disagreed on but could negotiate, and what they positively disagreed on. I remember sitting in the Secretary of State’s office when Adair Turner and John Monks made their report after months of consideration. We were all staggered by what they had done, because the CBI and the TUC had agreed on much more than we ever imagined. We set a programme based on the facts, the evidence and the thorough inquiry by the people who are the experts in this game—not the politicians, but business and the representatives of the work force.
My hon. Friend is setting out what I think is the correct approach to dealing with trade union matters. He mentioned earlier the role of the certification officer. From his wide experience of trade unions, is he aware of any problems with the current role he has set out? If not, does he share my conclusion that this is merely a politically motivated attack on trade unions going about their legitimate day-to-day business?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am trying to be polite to the Government. I must say that I have not had any contact with the certification officer for some time, but I know from the years when I did have contact that there were problems—it would be unfair to say that there were not. When I was in the job, a number of trade unions were very unhappy with the changes that had been made in 1984 and were not complying. I know from my contact with the trade unions that that is all resolved, and the record speaks for itself. The certification officer does a job that is required of him. Some people might think that he requires too much of the trade unions, but the fact of the matter is that they have accepted the regulation and work within the rules as they are.
The hon. Gentleman is giving a fascinating description of the certification officer’s role in providing membership audit certificates. The Leader of the Opposition has suggested in recent days that perhaps there should be an opt-in for the political fund. Does the hon. Gentleman support that, and does he think that that could have been included in the clause?
I hope that I took it in good part, Sir Edward.
The decision on the legislation that was to proceed was taken under the process I have mentioned, and everything agreed between the CBI and the TUC was implemented. At its heart was the need to take the heat out of industrial action. We looked at a whole range of areas. One key area was the problem of recognition disputes, when unions had built up a membership in a company and wanted recognition. Many such disputes ended up in the courts and in difficult strikes. We wanted to take the heat out of all areas of conflict. All of that was implemented in the Employment Relations Act 1999. The evidence was a dramatic reduction in the number of strikes—my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South mentioned the number, but I cannot remember—and that has been maintained. I do not think that there is any question about that.
During the Conservative years, and the previous Labour years, to be honest, the level of strikes was far too high. That legislation and that process brought that to an end, and at the time both sides were happy. Even before that legislation was implemented to set in place a process for dealing with recognition disputes, and the effort was to take them out of the courts and minimise conflict, over 1,000 new recognition agreements were signed by both sides.
One of the major problems with this Government is that they have a one-sided approach that demonises trade unions and in every way possible places barriers in the way of the trade union movement. There is no realisation of what happens on the ground. Most trade unions are there not to carry out strikes or disrupt the employer, but to protect their members. As part of the process I mentioned, we did a lot of balloting and held focus groups to find out why members signed up to unions. The important thing for most of them was the insurance policy that they got—the fact that the union would support them if there was an argument with their employer, and in particular would pay for the lawyers in an unfair dismissal case, for example. That is what members bought into.
One of my concerns about the Government’s approach is that the harder it becomes for trade unions to operate properly, as trade unions should be allowed to operate in a democratic system, the more members will become tired of the system and have no proper recourse for their grievances. I do not often agree with my hon. Friend John McDonnell on these issues—
My point is that if people see a weakened trade union movement, they will take matters into their own hands. That is a dangerous situation.
Many companies around this country work well with their trade unions and recognise them properly. Most are large; a significant number of FTSE companies, for example, have good relations with trade unions. I remember a number of occasions when unions have been used to lobby Members of Parliament. Once my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson and I made a difficult trip to Sellafield; we were expected to stand on top of a reactor, although we were both too cowardly to do that. We were also gently asked to meet the trade union officials. At that time we were developing an anti-nuclear policy.
Order. The hon. Gentleman should leave the subject of Sellafield and come back to clause 36, please. The discussion is getting very wide.
Two hundred trade unionists turned up to lobby us at the meeting we attended. The point I was trying to make, Mr Leigh, was about the relationship between a good union and a good employer.
My hon. Friend John Cryer raised union problems. There are two ways of looking at the matter. Either the Government do not know what the problems are, in which case they are negligent, or they know the problems and want them to be exploited. There are major difficulties in the path of any trade union that wants to keep proper records.
The first difficulty is the churn rate. My hon. Friend said that it was 10% or 15%, but the churn rate for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, or USDAW, for example, is 25% or sometimes 30%. Every year it has to replace 25% of its membership. A lot of members go on to other jobs. They pay their union dues by direct debit and think they do not need to bother to tell the union that they have changed workplace, because they are still working in the same business and paying their union dues. That is difficult for unions. There are lots of practical issues such as that.
The biggest employer in my area is the North sea oil and gas industry, which employs about 30,000 workers offshore and 150,000 onshore. All have different status in the workplace. Many union members are self-employed and many work from company to company. At the moment, there is a massive skill shortage in the North sea. Wages are being ramped up—not a problem in the rest of the country, I know—because people are being enticed to other companies, but still working in the same business, travelling on the same unsafe helicopters and paying their union dues as usual through their bank accounts. Those are all massive problems.
My hon. Friend’s speech is most interesting. It is incredibly important to put these issues into context. Over recent years, unions have spent millions of pounds trying to ensure that they have the best possible membership records. They have also had to pay many millions of pounds to lawyers in defending those membership records in courts of law. Is that really what we want?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the discussions we had in 1997, the aim was to take industrial relations out of the law courts, yet this Bill is going to put them back in again.
In addition to all the logistical problems, many employers, not just those in the North sea industry—I think this also applies to virtually every shipping company based in Britain—now offshore their workers so that employers national insurance contributions do not have to be paid. The Chancellor has decided that that situation should change, but I am not sure whether he has yet introduced the necessary regulations or legislation. When the employers are not paying national insurance and the workers are moving from system to system, it is very difficult for the trade union to make contact, and that is a major problem.
There are four major unions for workers on the North sea: the GMB, Unite, BALPA—the British Air Line Pilots Association—and the RMT. Those workers come from all parts of the country. Every one of them is registered with their trade union at their home address, but their workplace is the North sea. It is very difficult for the unions when they have major problems trying to contact their members on the North sea—even when they know they are there, which is not always the case. I saw many problems along those lines when I was involved in trade union ballots, because one of my jobs was to make sure that the unions had up-to-date and adequate records.
This issue has been under discussion in trade union and Government circles for a number of years. It is a great disappointment to me that the Labour Government did not recognise the problem, because it was easy to resolve. If the Minister is seriously worried about it, he could easily implement an obligation on employers to give information to trade unions about their current work force which would be virtually cost-free. It would not place a huge responsibility on employers to ask them to provide that information so that everybody can be sure that there is accuracy, particularly as regards any industrial ballots that may take place. There would be much more good will if the Government went down that route instead of imposing extra bureaucracy on the unions in the way they propose.
The issue of human rights gives rise to valid concerns. One of the trade union legal firms has given legal advice pointing out how intrusive the proposed powers are in relation to the possession of sensitive personal information, including the home addresses and personal contact details, and probably bank details, of unlimited numbers of union members. It says:
“The Bill gives the Certification Officer, his staff, inspectors and newly-created ‘Assurers’ sweeping powers to take and copy individual membership records and correspondence on the basis of having an undefined ‘good reason’. As the TUC has pointed out, it is not the business of the State to know who is or who is not a trade union member and where they live.”
There are serious worries about that. Others have mentioned the problems of blacklisting and so on, which should be taken much more seriously.
Finally, the much delayed impact assessment makes clear that the policy objective is to give greater assurance that unions comply with the existing duty to maintain a register of members’ names and addresses. I repeat the point that others have made: there is no evidence—or at least none that is clear to those of us who are regularly involved with trade unions—that this Bill is necessary. It is clear to the Opposition that it is politically motivated. The Liberal party has a very good record on trade unions and it is very difficult to understand why it is involved in this process.
There have been some fantastic contributions to this very important debate on part 3 of the Bill. The most important thing about the Bill has been addressed by my hon. Friend Mr Doran in his conclusion and by my right hon. Friend John Healey, who both said that it could be in contravention of the European convention on human rights. That is a huge issue.
The Bill was published eight working days ago, which has given no opportunity for any clear consultation. Indeed, there has been a complete lack of consultation.
Usually, those who are affected by a Bill are at least asked to participate in some form of consultation, but that simply has not been the case. The TUC, which is hardly a beacon of militancy, should at least have been given the opportunity to express the views of its 7.2 million members. Others should have been given a similar opportunity.
That lack of consultation and the fact that the Bill is undoubtedly an invasion of privacy and freedom of association mean that there is a huge question mark over whether it is legal. I am convinced that there will be a legal challenge.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has said so far. Is he aware that Unison commissioned Michael Ford QC of Old Square chambers to provide it with legal advice? It has been shared with the Government and says that
Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on the Minister to address those issues fully in her response?
I am fully aware of all the legal advice—it has been received not just by Unison but by other organisations—which clearly highlights the concerns about the Bill. The legal issue is very important and can be argued to and fro, as is always the case. However, if the legal profession have as many doubts about the Bill as it appears to have, surely it should have been put on the back burner in order to allow for consultation, legal advice and discussions with Members of all parties. Surely that is how we should operate in a democratic society. Of course, as my hon. Friend Mr Anderson mentioned, the Bill is not about tidying anything up, but about hammering trade unions. It is about trade union baiting, which the press, the media and the Conservative Government are happy to do on an almost daily basis. That is atrocious, but we see it day after day.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to attend the TUC conference for a number of reasons. Of course it is not a coincidence. It is part of the strategy of the coalition Government to attack trade unionists while they are at the trade union conference. Only a few Government Members have been here for this debate. There are only two present at the moment. That shows how much interest they have in the Bill. It is outrageous. This Bill is part of the Government’s clear-cut strategy to attack trade unions in any way that they can.
The real question is, what is the Bill about? I am really looking forward to the Minister’s response. She is a staunch Liberal Democrat. Some might say that she has sold her principles and her party down the river on many issues. Perhaps others would disagree. I am not sure, but my view is irrelevant.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. He is right to point out that clause 36 is neither liberal nor democratic if one is a trade unionist.
There has been no explanation or critique of the problem that the Government are seeking to solve. Is that not what we need to hear from the Minister?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. We have been in this debate for a number of hours and, despite many interventions from both sides of the Chamber, we have had no suggestion of what part 3 seeks to resolve. That can only mean that it does not seek to resolve anything. It is just bolted on to parts 1 and 2. It does not seek to do anything other than put a huge burden on the local trade unionists who are expected to compile the registers of the work force, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North said.
Those same lay members who do their work on a daily basis have been hammered by the coalition Government in terms of their facility time. That is not a coincidence because up to 90% of public sector workers, particularly those in local authorities, have been hammered in that way. And yet those are the individuals who give up their time to ensure that their trade unions adhere to the legislation, including the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The attack on the trade unions by taking away facility time will make it extremely difficult for those people.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being so generous with his time. I agree with everything that he has said. Does he agree that it would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether she has met the TUC to discuss the concerns that he raises? I know that the TUC is keen to talk to the Government about those matters.
It would be helpful if the Minister explained who has been consulted in this process—a lot of people would be interested to hear that. My view is that it would not take long to explain how many people have been consulted, because it is only one or two. The trade unions individually and the TUC collectively have not been consulted.
Getting back to the Bill—
I accept that I have again been led astray, Sir Edward. Perhaps I should have said that I am getting back to the meat of the Bill.
In the past two years—it has been blatantly obvious in the past week or so—we have seen that the Liberal Democrats are dead. They have been absolutely blown out of the water. Congratulations to them—they have suicide notes and everything. Last night, they voted against the big society, charities that strive to do their best, and campaign groups like the National Union of Students, which will campaign against the Liberal Democrats in a big way. I hope that, because of how they voted last night, the campaign against them will become increasingly strong. Let us hope they get their just desserts.
Part 3 deals with trade union administration. As Opposition Members have said, British trade union legislation is the most restrictive in western Europe—it is anti-trade union legislation. The question is this: what does part 3 seek to resolve? We have received copies of the impact assessment study, but it was not available earlier and, unfortunately, hon. Members have not had the opportunity to read it. A consultation document on the measure is absent from the discussion.
Clause 36 creates a new duty on trade unions to send a membership audit certificate to the certification officer when they see each annual return. If the union has more than 10,000 members, the membership audit certificate must be provided by an independent assurer. Given the current legislation, why is that measure being introduced? The existing system is working. Under the 1992 Act, a trade union has a duty to maintain a register of the names and addresses of its members and a duty
“so far as is reasonably practicable” to ensure that
“entries in the register are accurate and…kept up-to-date.”
The 1992 Act provides that a trade union should “allow any member”, on request, with
“reasonable notice, to ascertain from the register, free of charge…whether there is an entry on it relating to him” or her. A failure to comply with the requirements of section 24 can be subject to an application either to the CO or the court.
The certification office annual report 2012-13 states that 166 trade unions submitted returns but not membership lists, recording a total of nearly 7.2 million members, compared with 7,261,000 members the previous year—the largest reduction in membership was in the construction sector. The annual return is to include a copy of the auditor’s report on the accounts, which allows the CO to compare revenue from dues with the numbers reported.
In 2012-13, the returns showed that income from members increased by 1.3% to £873 million. The returns also showed that 90.5% of the total number of members were contributing members, compared to a figure of 89.4% in the previous year.
There is nothing to fix here. Even we accept the Bill, nothing will be fixed. The saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Trade unions are duty bound to maintain a register of members’ names and addresses—this is important—so far as is reasonably practicable, as per the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. I would have thought that anyone wishing to contribute to the debate has read section 24 of the 1992 Act.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech. He will be aware that a former leader of the Labour party called Britain’s trade union legislation the most restrictive in Europe. Is he surprised that Government Members are not jumping up to complain about red tape?
It is amazing. The Government are looking to cut red tape on industrial relations, health and safety and trade union law, but at the same time the only organisation for which they are looking to increase bureaucracy is the trade union movement. That is a fair point, which highlights what is really behind the Bill: another vicious attack on the trade union movement. In the main, it will be the ordinary person at grass-roots level who will have to make sure that the proposed legislation is applied.
Anyone wishing to take part in the debate should at least have read section 24 of the 1992 Act, as that is what the Bill is about. What on earth are we after? Section 24 states:
“Duty to maintain register of members’ names and addresses
(1) A trade union shall compile and maintain a register of the names and addresses of its members, and shall secure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the entries in the register are accurate and are kept up-to-date.
(2) The register may be kept by means of a computer.”
Is it not true that the certification officer oversees compliance with the 1992 Act to ensure that membership records are kept correctly? Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that there is no need for further regulation or changes to the law to add to this bureaucratic burden?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. That is the point I hope I have established and I will continue to make it.
Section 24(3) states:
“A trade union shall—
“(a) allow any member, upon reasonable notice, to ascertain from the register, free of charge and at any reasonable time, whether there is an entry on it relating to him; and .
(b) if requested to do so by any member, supply him as soon as reasonably practicable, either free of charge or on payment of a reasonable fee, with a copy of any entry on the register relating to him.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to Back Benchers. His point is crucial to the decisions we will take today. Is he aware of any suggestion made to the Government by trade unions that they are not able to meet the requirements set out in the 1992 Act and therefore require new legislation?
Although the trade unions were not very receptive to the legislation initially, they accepted the change in the law. They accepted that the TULR regulations had to be adhered to, and they have done so—reluctantly, although now it is not too much of a problem. In fact, in many ways it helps trade unions to keep people pressed to ensure that they have up-to-date names and addresses for all members. The trade unions were not receptive at the time; they are happy now. Indeed, I have not spoken to any union or union representative, or even any union member or non-union member—not one person—who has told me that we need more legislation on union names and addresses in the register. Although the unions were not happy about the 1992 Act initially, it has been acted upon and delivered. There are not many complaints, as we have heard, to the certification officer because of problems with the names and addresses in the register or the legislation, so everything seems to be in order. Everything seems to be going ahead, yet the Government have put these proposals before us.
That is an important point. I have been in front of the certification officer on numerous occasions in my previous employment, on lots of different issues—some not very pleasant, by the way—but there are very few people complaining to the certification officer about this issue. We heard the facts and the figures from my hon. Friend Ian Murray, which show that there is no one complaining. The only person complaining is the certification officer, who is saying, “What on earth do you want me to do here? I’m only doing what I’m expected to do. What’s happening?”
On the onerous duty placed on the certification officer by clause 36 as currently drafted, proposed new section 24ZA(7) of the 1992 Act says:
“The Certification Officer must at all reasonable hours”— not “times”, but “hours”—
“keep available for public inspection…copies of all membership audit certificates sent to the Officer under this section.”
Can the hon. Gentleman throw any light on the definition of “all reasonable hours”, rather than reasonable times?
I personally cannot do that—if I had drafted these wretched regulations, I might be in a position to do so—but the hon. Lady highlights an important point. Perhaps that is something the Opposition could suggest: that there is a difference between this legislation and the certification officer legislation in the TULR regulations.
Section 25 of the 1992 Act addresses a number of problems—Members have referred to this—by setting out how failures can be remedied and how people can apply to the certification officer if they believe there is a failure under the legislation. Section 25(1) says:
Section 25(2) says:
“On an application being made to him, the Certification Officer shall…make such enquiries as he thinks fit”.
That is reasonable. It means that if someone has a problem under section 24 of the 1992 Act, which deals with the names and addresses of individuals, and if the certification officer believes there is a problem, he may, under section 25(2)(a), make inquiries as he thinks fit, give the applicant and the trade union an opportunity to be heard, under section 25(2)(b), and then
“make or refuse the declaration asked for.”
That means that, under section 25, if any individual member of a trade union has a problem, the certification officer will, on receiving an application, investigate it. He will investigate it together with the applicant, and the trade union will be there to give its side of the story. We must remember that the existing legislation includes the words “reasonably practicable”. There could be a lot of reasons for a name or address being slightly different. There is a whole raft of legislation already in place relating to the matters covered in this Bill.
My hon. Friend will know that over the years, under Governments of both political complexions, there have been all sorts of reports on what are generally referred to as the burdens on business. In line with the suggestion from Mr Djanogly, does not my hon. Friend think it would be a good idea to have an assessment of the burdens on trade unions? I would not recommend someone like Adrian Beecroft to conduct such a review, but it would be a good idea to have some sort of report on those burdens, just so that we can set out the argument in objective terms, in contrast to this very subjective piece of legislation that is being rammed through Parliament.
Of course that should be the case, but I am not sure that the Opposition should ask the coalition Government even to try to be sympathetic to the trade union movement. I would be afraid of their response. I know that it would not be positive. Perhaps instead of taking away 90% of trade unionists’ facility time, they would take 95%. That is an example of the ways in which the trade unions have been attacked by the coalition Government.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case for why this dreadful legislation should not make it to the statute book. Given his vast experience of trade unions, can he think of any scenario in which it would be in a union’s interest not to keep an updated membership list?
Speaking from vast experience, it is always in a trade union’s interest to maintain the best possible record of its members, for a whole raft of reasons. A good trade union does not stand on its hind legs every week screaming, “Strike, strike, strike!” A good trade union needs the correct names and addresses of its members, so that it can address all the problems that society currently faces. This is not just about strike action, which was mentioned by Mr Djanogly. That is always a last resort. But I will tell you something, Mr Sheridan. I was on strike for a full year during the miners’ strike, and what a brilliant year it was! I was fighting not for myself but for the wider society, for jobs and for communities up and down the country. It gives people a lot of pleasure if they are taking action and suffering greatly for those reasons. My father and my four brothers were all on strike—my mother had a hell of a job—but we enjoyed it because we were fighting for others. That is what the trade union movement is about, and that is why I get terribly upset by the constant union-baiting from the Liberal Democrats and of course the Tories.
It is in everyone’s interest to keep accurate records. Under the measures that were introduced in 1992, trade unions have to have that information for balloting reasons, among others. They normally have to send a full membership list with the annual return form, the AR21, to the certification officer anyway. The problem was that whenever we tried to take any type of democratic industrial action, the employer would say to me as the local representative, “You’d better have the right names and addresses. If you haven’t, we’ll get an injunction. Then, under the law, the union will be liable for any loss to the company resulting from strike action.” At the same time, the employer obviously had a list of everybody’s names and addresses. A responsible employer has everyone’s name and address in order to pay them—some trade unionists might prefer to keep their identity private—so surely it should be incumbent on the employer to allow any change in name and address to be passed on to the relevant trade union so that the union can act in accordance with the law. Is that too much to ask? It is feasible, but it is a trap.
I was a representative at different levels of the union, and we would sometimes appear in front of the certification officer and often the High Court. If industrial action occurs, it might be said that somebody’s name has been spelt incorrectly or that somebody has died without people being aware of it in order to try to get that whole democratic process abolished. That is the problem with this legislation.
Many colleagues on both sides of the Committee might agree that bureaucracy is not always a dirty word. Since the Prime Minister got the keys to Downing Street, the Government have promised to cut red tape. What have we seen? We have seen the Government making it easier for people to be hired and fired for no particular reason. They have gone to work with some zeal in attacking workers’ rights at every opportunity, and they have relaxed health and safety legislation. The unions have rightly opposed all those things, which they won in the first place.
I have said before that it is funny that the only area where the Government have sought to increase bureaucracy is in the administration of trade unions. This will not be for the last time either. Unfortunately, this coalition, with Liberal Democrat support, will continue to oppose and attack not just trade union members, but many of the most vulnerable people in society. That is what they are about. As I have said, I believe that at the ballot box they will reap what they have sown. That, by the way, is democracy.
This Bill is undoubtedly about ideology. It is a thinly veiled attack on a movement that the parties on the Government Benches despise. We could move on to deal with the duty to appoint an assurer, but at this point I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South and of course the shadow BIS Secretary, my hon. Friend Mr Umunna, who has highlighted another issue relating to another problem with these lists. They will allow organisations to increase blacklisting, which is already the scourge of the working class. Because of information being passed willy-nilly from employer to different secret organisations, some people are on blacklists. At the end of the day, these people and their families can suffer greatly for the rest of their lives.
That is a problem with the data. The new rules will mean that three new groups will have access to individual membership details—three new opportunities for data to escape into the public domain. Several organisations have raised a concern—I have already mentioned it—about the legality of that. The trade union movement and its individual organisations have a duty under the Data Protection Act to ensure that the information they hold on individual members is kept secure, but this new legislation when passed—not “if”, because it will be passed—will prevent that from happening. There will be a legal contradiction about who is right and it will be up for legal challenge.
I think that in any other country, action such as this on the part of a democratically elected Government would be condemned as an attack on free trade unionism, and I think that that is exactly what is happening in this case. It is about time that the coalition Government sat back and paused, as they have in the past. It is time that they consulted others, got the legal position right, and then returned with reforms that actually meant something and changed something. I look forward very much indeed to the Minister’s response, which should take all of one minute.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sheridan.
I intend to focus on clause 36 stand part. Let me begin by putting it on the record—in case anyone thinks that I am trying to hide it—that I am very much part of the trade union movement. I am a former national president of Unison, and a honorary life member of that union; I am a member of the Communication Workers Union, and a former proud member of the National Union of Mineworkers; and I was a member of the General Council of the TUC for six years. So I think that I may just have a little bit of an idea of what we are talking about, whereas other Members who are in the Chamber may not.
I was actively involved in the trade union movement for 40 years, and during that time I challenged very drastically some of the legislation that has been referred to today, including the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which the trade unions described at the time as a scabs’ charter. That was exactly what it was there for. It was there to help people to take on and undermine their own trade unions. It was a deliberate attempt by the Conservative party to undermine trade union legislation and trade union activity, and exactly the same thing is happening today. This Bill is part and parcel of that legislation. [Interruption.] It looks as though the Minister wants to intervene.
I was just speculating on when the hon. Gentleman would actually refer to clause 36, given the absence of any reference to it so far. However, I am sure that the Chairman will intervene when he thinks that the hon. Gentleman is not addressing the issue.
That is par for the course in this debate, Mr Sheridan. The Government are trying to stifle debate, and they are doing that by pushing the Bill through Parliament in record time. They do not want to hear the truth. They do not want to hear the facts. There is a thread running through this debate. It is not about the clauses; it is not about the words on the paper; it is about a political fix. The Minister’s party is colluding with the Tory party in an attempt—a direct attempt, as we heard yesterday—to fix the people in this country so that their voices are dumbed down.
The 1992 Act created the office of commissioner for the rights of trade union members, or CROTUM. There was also a Scottish commissioner for the rights of trade union members, or SCROTUM. That is what the debate, and the Bill, are about. It is fitting in this context.
That office was set up deliberately to encourage disgruntled trade union members to get out of their unions and undermine them.
The Minister said that I should return to the subject of the clause, and I shall do so now. Let me ask this: why are we here? This debate ought to be driven by the huge public concern that exists in this country about cash for questions, cronyism, dinners at No. 10 and the buying of favours. We ought to be discussing what was revealed yesterday by my hon. Friend John Mann: the fact that private individuals pumped £250,000 into his constituency to try to prevent him from becoming Member of Parliament for Bassetlaw. We should be discussing those issues, rather than the minutiae of legislation that is already more than adequate.
As was pointed out by my hon. Friend Ian Murray, 40 million people have been registered on union lists in the last seven years, and there has not been one complaint. The people of this country are not concerned about what certification officers are getting up to; they are concerned about cronyism. They are concerned about the influence that Murdoch has, and the influence that private people have. They are concerned about people such as Asil Nadir and Michael Brown, who are languishing in jail while the Government parties keep money that they stole.
My hon. Friend is making a superb speech. If his constituency mailbag is anything like mine, he will have received hundreds of e-mails and letters about yesterday’s business. How many people in his constituency have raised concerns about the certification officer?
Absolutely none; not one.
We heard earlier from our learned friend the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee about the work it was doing to try to build a consensus across the House in addressing the points the people of this country are really worried about. That has been thrown out of the window, however, so that yesterday we discussed attacks on charities and organisations like the Royal British Legion and today we are talking about attacks on the trade union movement.
No trade union has approached me about the certification officer, but, as my hon. Friend Ian Lavery said, the unions campaigned against legislation in the 1990s, but they have now accepted the reality of that legislation. They have put money aside time and again. Staff time is used up and people are employed to make sure the records are kept up to date. There is no reason to do what this part of the Bill is saying should be done, and what this part of the Bill is supposed to be about does not in any sense have anything to do with lobbying or people misusing lobbyists.
As we saw yet again today, the Prime Minister cannot stop himself: he has to attack the trade union movement, because that is part of the narrative—the big, bad trade union bosses who are controlling the Labour party, telling the leader what to do and telling us all what to do, and bankrolling us. That is absolute guff. The people being bankrolled are the Members sitting on the Government Benches, who are bankrolled by people who have no democratic right whatsoever and where there is no transparency about what they are doing. The truth is the agenda is very clear: big business is getting away with murder.
We have heard over the past few days that 1% of lobbyists could be caught by this Bill. What about the other 99% who are getting away with things? That is what the people of this country are worried about.
This is a continuation of a raft of constitutional work that has been done over the past three years: the alternative vote referendum Bill, Lords reform, the packing out of the Lords, the boundary review, the attempts to impose city mayors. They have been introduced for one reason alone: to tip the balance of power in favour of the coalition parties at the 2015 general election. It is a deliberate ploy, and people can see through it and see it for what it is. The Government want to put this Bill in place quickly so that from
Would the hon. Gentleman care to comment on the inconsistency in the Government’s approach? A Bill relating to Northern Ireland is going through that will continue the anonymity of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland, but this Bill, which is about the transparency of all sorts of things, is putting huge burdens on charities and trade unions. In Northern Ireland, however, we do not know how much, if anything, any of the parties represented in this House are contributing across Northern Ireland.
As the hon. Lady will know, I serve on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and I have been involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill. The way it has passed through this House is a model of how to handle legislation. We went to Northern Ireland, we met people over there, we brought people to this House, and we talked about the implications of the measures. We talked literally about life and death matters, because people are frightened. They say, “If I’m exposed as supporting this political party, my life could be at risk.” That is a model of how to deal with a Bill, but it is the exact opposite of what has happened with this Bill—what has happened here is an absolute disgrace.
Inconsistency is a problem. I have mentioned a number of times that no one seems to think it is an issue. Three organisations that ought to know whether or not the current arrangements are working are the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the certification officer and ACAS, and they all say they have had no complaints.
We have heard this is part and parcel of a modernisation process. What about the Government’s system of one-in, two-out regulation? Regulations will be involved in implementing this measure, as will costs to the taxpayer, when we employ assessors and investigators. What does that do? I hope that the Minister will tell us how many regulations she thinks might be needed to put this in place and which regulations she will take out to cover for it.
It is clear from our discussions that there are two reasons why this measure is going to be pushed through. First, it will make it very much harder for unions to have democratically effective industrial action—that is clear. Secondly, as has been reported by Liberal Democrat Lord Tyler—this was mentioned by my right hon. Friend John Healey—it is about having an impact on the ability of trade unions to fund the political party they choose to fund. It is dead clear that that is what it is about. People are not stupid. Government Members expect the public of this country to be treated like fools, but people are not fools and they can see through this; the Bill is about “transparency”—there is a lot of transparency going on at this time. People know exactly what is happening.
Why should this “transparency” apply only to people who support the Labour party? Why are we not talking about whether it is right and proper that we can see what makes up the Labour party’s political fund? When are we going to see the same from the other parties? When are they going to cough up? When are they going to show us where their money comes from? We can see why they would not want to do that.
This measure is just like yesterday’s in that it is about Government Members trying to shrink away from accountability—the accountability that applies to those such as the TUC, the trade union movement, the Royal British Legion, the Robin Hood tax campaign and the National Union of Students. This is the accountability that people demand of us and that they will want to demand of us coming up to an election, and it is right that they should do so. It is the mark of a civilised society that we stand up and are accountable. Sometimes when we stand up we are found wanting and people get rid of us. Sometimes when we stand up we are not found wanting but they still get rid of us. That is called democracy and we should not be frightened of it. Clearly, Government Members are frightened to stand up and be made accountable.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, as there is absolutely no doubt about what he says. I do not think that any Government Member has said that it is not the case. The one Government Member who made a serious contribution was Mr Djanogly, who spoke about whether this measure should be more restrictive. Although I would not agree with his view, he was making the point that we have something in place. He was asking whether we could make it tougher, but even he accepted the fact that the certification officer was saying, “There isn’t a problem.” The numbers that have been cited clearly show that there is no problem.
The TUC was right to say that this measure is part and parcel of a package that is attacking free speech: it is limiting criticism of the Government or Government policies; it is threatening the legality of the TUC to do its business through its congress; it is preventing the TUC from having a national demonstration in the lead-up to any elections; and it is preventing campaigning. As Lady Hermon said, it also raises particular issues in places such as Northern Ireland and has implications there. So, if nothing else, we should be saying, “This is not on.”
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne asked the Leader of the House, when he was still here, why he will not do the same as he did when he was Secretary of State for Health—pause and reflect.
He could resign—that is a good idea.
I am clear that the reason why the Government will not pause and reflect is because they want to ram this measure through. There is a timetable involved. The Conservative party has decided that
We have had a wide-ranging debate this afternoon on this string of amendments. At some points it might have resembled more of a part 3 stand part debate, but we have certainly discussed clause 36 stand part and the amendments, and I hope to address the points that have been made.
It is important that union activity and decisions reflect the will of members. Knowing who their members are and being able to engage them is fundamental to unions’ democratic accountability.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we are almost four hours into the debate and I want to make a little progress. I will then be happy to take some interventions, particularly from Members who have not been able to be in the Chamber for the whole debate.
Unions are already required to keep an accurate and up-to-date list of their members. Indeed, many hon. Members from all parties have talked about how that is an important requirement and how it is in the interests of members. Many unions serve a large and diverse membership across different employers, job types and regions, and of course we all know that unions can take action that may have widespread consequences beyond the immediate members of the organisations. That is why it is reasonable that the Government should examine the formal requirements for the unions’ responsibility to keep their membership records accurate and up to date and that unions should be able visibly to demonstrate that they know who their members are and that they can communicate with them.
Of course, accurate membership records are essential to ensuring proper democratic representation and, of course, they are important for administrative efficiency, particularly when a postal vote is necessary. Good membership records make that process much easier. Of course, members need to be confident that the activity their union undertakes is representative of the view and wishes of its members generally. For example, if there has been a low turnout in a postal ballot on general executive positions, members should be confident that that is because some people are choosing not to vote and not because they have in some way been disfranchised. As union activity can also affect everybody’s daily lives, it is important that the general public can have confidence that the unions’ actions are also based on a representative view of their members.
This is a relatively modest measure to give such confidence and assurance. I agree that membership lists are important, a point that has been made by many Members. As unions are already undertaking activity to try to ensure that the lists are up to date, it should not be a particularly onerous obligation to demonstrate that they have procedures in place to keep those lists up to date.
Labour Members have made the point that the certification officer ensures that trade unions keep their records up to date. I spent 23 years of my life working in the trade union movement. They are the most rigorously democratic and the best administered organisations that I have ever seen. The hon. Lady ought to recognise that.
I certainly recognise that trade unions play an important part in our national life, both in the workplace and more widely, and that they are a positive force in our communities. I also recognise that there is already significant regulation in place. That said, however, there is a requirement to keep lists of members accurate and up to date, but the certification officer does not have the full powers to ensure that that happens except when they are responding to a particular complaint. That is the very narrow issue that these clauses, and particularly clause 36, are designed to address.
Before I take further interventions, let me mention the impact assessment. A full impact assessment was published, submitted to the Regulatory Policy Committee and made available on gov.uk from
It is has been interesting that various hon. Members have highlighted some of the difficulties faced by unions when trying to keep large lists up to date, given the extent of churn. We recognise that considerable efforts are made, but that is a difficulty, so we want to reassure the public, union members and others in workplaces that proper processes are in place to make that happen. We are trying to plug a specific gap—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but in what I can describe only as her rather waffling answer to my hon. Friend Nic Dakin, she failed to identify exactly what the problem is and why the measures are required. Will she tell the Committee what evidence she has to show that there is a problem?
If that is how the hon. Gentleman describes my answer to his hon. Friend, I would be interested to hear how he would describe several of the speeches we heard during the debate.
Trade unions have a significant impact on the lives of people in our country. We want to ensure that their membership lists are up to date, and everyone has an interest in that being achieved. As hon. Members have said, we know that that can often be a challenging process, for good reasons, so we want to provide assurance that it will happen.
Clause 36 will give wide assurance that unions know how to contact their members so that their decisions will reflect what their members want. We do not want to change the vital and positive role that unions play in society, but we do want to give confidence in their accountability.
“so far as is reasonably practicable”.
That section allows any union member to find out whether there is an entry relating to him or her and to see a copy of the information. Clause 36 builds on that by making unions give the certification officer an annual membership audit certificate alongside the annual return that they already submit. Clause 37 provides a union with more than 10,000 members will have to appoint an independent assurer to produce the certificate, as well as setting out what is required for that process, but clause 36 states what smaller unions with fewer than 10,000 members will have to do. They will be able to have a union officer sign off the certificate with a statement that, to the best of their knowledge, the union has complied with its duties under section 24. I hope that the Committee will agree that that is a pretty light-touch approach and that the duty is not onerous in the slightest. Of course, we expect that smaller unions will have a less complicated register, so it is reasonable that a union officer would know the content well enough to be able to make such a statement.
As the clause is designed to give widespread assurance, all unions of any size will have to let anyone who asks to see their most recent certificate to do so, for which they may charge a reasonable amount, if they want. The certification officer will have to keep copies of all certificates and to allow the public to look at them. Subsections (3) and (4) allow a trade union to fulfil the new duty on behalf of its branches and require that federated unions must comply with the new duty. Our aim is not to change what unions should already be doing to maintain their membership data, but to get them to provide assurance of what they are doing to their members and the public.
The Minister said that unions have some influence and she is trying to give assurance. Does she accept that trade unions and trade union members have very little power in society compared with many other organisations, such as multinationals and other vested interests? Does she not think it is inappropriate that she is focusing on this area rather than trying to give all of us more assurance that some of those other organisations which hold massive power in society are brought into check?
The hon. Lady raises a point that others have raised, which I will come to in my remarks about the regimes that are in place for different types of organisations. The trade unions have their particular tailored regime, which is appropriate. We would not necessarily want the same regime to apply to charities, trade unions and political parties. It is appropriate that we have systems in place that deal with those particular organisations.
I am grateful to the Minister for putting me in my right place in North Down. She has given the impression in her contribution this afternoon that the clause is just a tidying-up operation. If it is that, what consultation have the Government had with the trade union movement? What efforts have been made to reassure the trade unions that this is just a small tidying-up operation?
The hon. Lady raises a reasonable point. We carried out a targeted consultation exercise over the summer. We issued a discussion paper, to which we received 42 responses. This goes to some of the points raised by Ian Lavery. Twenty-four of those responses were from trade unions, and a variety of employers, business organisations, and local and devolved Administrations also responded. It was important that we did that. I meet regularly with the Trades Union Congress general secretary. I have met her to discuss issues surrounding the Bill and I am due to do so again. It is important to have that positive relationship.
As I am responding to the hon. Lady, I will respond to the point that she raised earlier in an intervention about an aspect of the terminology—“reasonable hours” as opposed to “reasonable time”. The terms mean the same thing and there is no legal difference, but the phrase “reasonable hours” is copied from what the certification officer already has to do in making available the union annual returns. In practice that will probably mean that they will be on the website, which will meet that requirement.
I will give way again to the hon. Lady, then I shall make progress as there are other groups of amendments that we will want to discuss.
I am enormously grateful to the Minister for taking a second intervention from me. May I make a plea to the Government about drafting such a Bill? It is very difficult to make it comprehensible for those who are not legally qualified. It is very poor drafting that clause 36 states:
“The Certification Officer must at all reasonable hours”, and that when we turn the page to proposed new section 24ZE we see that an assurer
“has a right of access at all reasonable times”.
May we please have some consistency in drafting?
I have some sympathy with the point that the hon. Lady makes. Like her, I am not a lawyer—[Interruption.] I apologise. I am certainly not a lawyer; I am not sure what the hon. Lady’s background is. Legislation should be in plain English where possible, and that is something that I endeavour to advance within Government, but sometimes terms are taken from other pieces of legislation for very good reasons, to create consistency. I appreciate the point that she makes.
I said that I would make progress. I shall do that and then take some more interventions.
It is worth noting that there are also obligations on employers to provide information. If an employer has recognised a union, they are already required to provide the union with information that is relevant for collective bargaining and good industrial relations practice. We plan to provide guidance for employers in relation to the information that they hold that will assist unions with meeting their new obligations.
As has been outlined, there may be circumstances in which an employer has more information than the union on the names and addresses of employees who may be union members. For example, if a union member has their work address as a contact and the workplace moves, the member might forget to notify the union. Making sure that there is better guidance on how employers can assist unions to comply with all the requirements is an important part of what we are looking to do.
Everything the Minister has mentioned so far could be done within the existing system and without applying this further layer of bureaucracy. Is she aware of the cost of accountants these days? For a union such as Unison, which has over 1 million members, auditing the membership would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. The figures in the impact assessment are laughable.
I hope that I can give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance. It is not a question of every single membership entry having to be audited; it is about the process the union has in place for doing so. The certificate needs to be provided to give assurance on that. He also said—a few Members mentioned this—that the proposed powers somehow exist already, but they are actually very narrowly drawn. The certification officer’s power to investigate a complaint by an individual member applies only to that individual’s membership record; it does not extend to other members in the organisation. Indeed, it does not give those who might not be a member of a trade union the ability to complain. Of course, a member might not know that there is a problem with their records. Indeed, if they are not receiving information from the union, they might not know when there is a ballot for a committee, for example.
I will turn now to the specific amendments and respond to some of the points that have been raised. Amendment 103 would remove the annual duty to provide a membership audit certificate. Instead, the certificate would need to be submitted only if a complaint were received by the certification officer and he thought that it was necessary. Amendment 121 would go along with amendment 103 by removing the duty to appoint an assurer. I do not think that the amendments are useful, because they stop the key policy objective. I agree that there is clearly a difference of opinion between both sides of the Committee on the reasonableness of the measure, but that is why the Government do not support the amendments. The current arrangements just do not give that assurance, because they rely on members proactively checking the register. Even if they do check the register, they cannot see all of it and they do not know whether other names and addresses are up to date; and nor would they know who should and should not be on the register.
Various Members have mentioned the difficulties of tracking membership. Indeed, the Engineering Employers Federation has commented that trade unions
“do not have a unified way of tracking membership and it remains difficult for them to do so”.
“Unions have stated difficulties at times maintaining the addresses of members”.
Amendment 104 would allow for delaying the submission of a membership audit certificate if the union were appealing. I absolutely understand that unions do not want an assurer to send mistakenly or maliciously a qualified certificate to the certification officer without their knowing about it, but I believe that the amendment is unnecessary and hope to give some reassurance why. The current drafting states that the assurer will send the copy of the membership audit certificate to the certification officer only after it is provided to the union, which means that the union will already have seen the certificate and had that opportunity to talk with the assurer. Of course, it is worth noting that it is the union that will appoint the assurer, and it has every ability within the agreement it makes in appointing an assurer to say that it would like the opportunity to see the certificate and comment before it is sent off.
I think that most of us are still mystified about the objectives of the clause, so I will put one scenario to the Minister to test its purpose. The clause will enable someone who is not a trade union member—a member of the Conservative party, for example—to contest the membership list. This is about communications between the union and its members, so if the union in the run up to the next general election, say, sends out a letter to its members urging them to vote for the Labour party, the Conservative party member, who is not a member of a trade union, could contest the accuracy of the membership list and, in that way, undermine the trade union’s ability to communicate with its members. That is possible under this legislation, and it betrays its purpose.
The certificate that will have been issued, and which will be available for any member of the public to look at, will show that the union has a proper process in place for maintaining its membership list. That will give that assurance to anybody who looks at it. It of course will not give the details of the names and addresses of the union members, as some Members seem to have suggested; it will simply give that assurance.
I will make some progress, because many points were raised in the debate, but I will give way shortly.
Amendment 106 would mean that an individual who wanted to see the membership audit certificate would have to pay the union’s administrative costs. That is not necessary, because under the Bill a union providing the certificate can do so for free or for a reasonable charge, as it sees fit. The union can already obtain payment, so the amendment is not necessary. I urge hon. Members, vainly perhaps, to withdraw their amendments.
Ian Murray raised specific questions about the certification officer asking for powers. He referred to FOI requests. The “one in, two out” measure will come from the general stock of measures that BIS undertakes, although a significant burden is not being imposed. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would give the certification officer additional resources. Yes, we intend to do so; we anticipate that three members of staff will be needed to make sure the role can be properly carried out.
I have to disagree with my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly, who suggested that we should go significantly further in a whole range of ways. The issue is about giving confidence for the existing duty to keep membership lists up to date; it is not about political donations, funds or types of membership, as my hon. Friend suggested it should be. I reiterate that the current system is working well. There is a historically low level of industrial action at the moment, which is helpful.
Yasmin Qureshi accused the Government of insulting the unions and failing to recognise the benefits that they bring. I want to be absolutely clear, as I have been in previous statements to the House, that I agree that unions play an important role in the workplace through training and representation. The media and a lot of the debate focus on industrial action, but that is not representative of the role that trade unions play. All the provision does is require an assurance that existing obligations to keep members’ names and addresses up to date are properly undertaken. It is a reasonable and modest change that is pretty hard to disagree with.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that there is a suspicion that the issue is about industrial action? If the assurer is to prepare for the audit and certification, surely that process could be challenged; it would be yet another matter that could be brought up in the context of an employer’s seeking an injunction to stop industrial action of some sort. Is she not simply creating more avenues for litigation?
The short answer is no. The longer one is that the case law is clear. As has been outlined in the past two or three years, small and inadvertent errors that would not have affected the outcome of a ballot are not grounds for an injunction, and it is right that that should continue.
I want to make progress, because we want to scrutinise other elements of the Bill today.
My hon. Friend Stephen McPartland made a powerful contribution. He mentioned that social pressure can be applied to make people go on strike; those at the workplace who are not members of a particular union may be affected by industrial action. They might be an example of those who would like reassurance about the updating processes for the membership lists.
John Healey asked whether we would commit to publishing legal advice. As he will know from his time as a Minister, the convention is that the Government do not publish such advice. I am, of course, happy to give reassurance on his point. Clause 36 requires the provision of the certificate but will not contain information about individual members, so the article 8 right to privacy is not breached. I am sure that when we discuss the next group of amendments we will come to some of those human rights, privacy and confidentiality issues.
Mr McKenzie said that data would be revealed in some way, but the confidentiality of members’ details will still be subject to data protection rules, the Human Rights Act and the obligations of confidentiality in clause 37.
John McDonnell said that the provisions would displace core union activity, but we should recognise that the changes are modest. Unions are already required to keep the register of names and addresses and of course we will work with unions and others to ensure that there is a smooth transition to the new system, supported by appropriate guidance.
Analogies with other membership organisations were raised by various Members. As I outlined to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, charities are regulated by the Charity Commission, which has widespread powers that focus on financial management because of the importance of donors and beneficiaries. The commission can carry out regular supervision and monitoring, including compliance visits. If a charity is under investigation, the commission can freeze assets and suspend or remove trustees. In the case of companies, the Companies Act provides the regulatory powers. The information has to include names and addresses and dates of membership, and fines and penalties are in place for non-compliance with these duties. The IOD and the CBI are lobbying organisations incorporated by royal charter, which means that the Privy Council is responsible for significant aspects of their internal control. I doubt that unions would think that those regulatory frameworks were appropriate to their unique status. Trade unions have a unique set of powers. They have rights and obligations—for example, the ability to take industrial action without financial liability for the consequences on those it affects. That is a special set of rights and it is therefore appropriate that they have a tailored set of regulations.
John Cryer said that it is hard to keep accurate records of a work force, particularly in sectors where they are very fluid, such as construction, where there is significant churn. I absolutely appreciate those points and agree with him. That is why it is important that good procedures are in place to provide assurance that the lists are up to date. That is qualified by the phrase,
“as far as reasonably practicable.”
We will take into account the difficulties that are encountered.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North made a thoughtful contribution in which he made good points about previous problems with great swings in policy direction from one Government to the next and the importance of trying to get agreement between the TUC and the CBI. There can often be common ground, as we find through the agreements on, say, the agency worker regulations or the way in which such organisations are able to work together through institutions such as the Low Pay Commission. He thinks that we are demonising trade unions, but I respectfully disagree. Many companies have very good relations with trade unions which play an important and welcome role. He over-eggs the impact that this measure will have.
I have dealt with the consultation issue raised by Mr Anderson made a number of points that mainly echoed others that had already been made and that I think I have dealt with. I appreciate that I may not have satisfied every member of the Committee. None the less, I have set out why clause 36 should stand part of the Bill and the amendments should be rejected.
Thank you, Mr Sheridan, for chairing this debate.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken—my right hon. Friend John Healey and my hon. Friends Mr Anderson, for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer). We also heard from two Government Members—the hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland).
I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Minister, but let me put on record that this is yet another case of a Liberal Democrat doing the Tories’ dirty work for them in this Chamber: again, that has been left to her. We are over four hours into this debate and we have yet to hear one bit of evidence for clause 36 being necessary or what problem it is trying to remedy. The Minister has said absolutely nothing about that. The TUC, the certification officer, ACAS and BIS officials are still to produce any evidence at all about the problem in the system that this clause is trying to remedy.
Before we test the will of the Committee on amendment 103, let me point out that Labour Members are saying clearly that if there is a problem, the Government should bring forward the evidence. The amendment would say to the certification officer that if a complaint is made by any third party and he decides that it is verifiable, he can then take the power, if he so wishes, to instigate action under the clause. That is a very modest change to a very draconian part of this ramshackle Bill.
Finally, I remind Members that we are not talking about trade unions in the round; we are talking about the people who deliver the mail, serve in the shops, teach our children, care for the sick, look after the elderly, clean our streets, assemble our cars and build our houses. The Liberal Democrats should remember that and come into the Lobby to vote for amendment 103.