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Provision for electronic balloting: review and piloting scheme

Trade Union Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:51 pm on 27th April 2016.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

With this we will consider the following:

Government amendment (b) to Lords amendment 2.

Lords amendment 17, and Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (c) to words restored to the Bill.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

The measures in the Bill aim to modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members and strike a fairer balance between the rights of trade unions and the rights of people who rely on public services, by ensuring that strikes happen only when unions have secured a clear, positive and recent democratic mandate. Consideration in the House of Lords has made important changes to the Bill, the great majority of which the Government believe will improve the Bill. However, the first group of amendments deals with those issues on which the Government do not support the proposed changes.

The first group is about electronic balloting and facility time. We have reflected carefully, in the light of the strong views expressed in debates in this House and in the other place, and I will take each issue in turn. As I have said before, the Government have no objection in principle to electronic balloting. I have also said before, and I am happy to say it again at the Dispatch Box, that it is likely to be common in 20 years’ time. We are seeking a degree of sensible caution on this matter.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

The Minister will remember our many conversations about this in Committee. He says that he is not opposed to electronic balloting in principle and he accepts that it might come in. We can see the Lords amendment before us and there are moves towards a pilot scheme. Electronic balloting is used by many organisations including the Law Society, many businesses and indeed the Conservative party for the purposes of the mayoral elections. Why not just do this now?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I have greatly enjoyed debating the many detailed clauses of the Bill with the hon. Gentleman over a long period when he occupied a different post on the Opposition Front Bench, and if he will give me time, I will explain why I am not quite ready to rush to the nirvana that he describes.

We are seeking a degree of sensible caution to ensure that important votes—these are indeed statutory votes—are safe and secure, so I am not asking hon. Members today to reject the clause added to the Bill in the House of Lords on electronic balloting. However, I am asking for agreement to a small but important change to ensure that we proceed prudently on the basis of evidence as we take this important step.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

The Minister will no doubt have seen the evidence from the Electoral Reform Society that the incidence of fraud in electronic balloting is no different from the incidence of fraud in postal balloting. In the light of that evidence, what is his objection?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

The hon. Gentleman will have to be a little patient, because I am going to come on to talk about evidence from around the world of some of the problems that other systems have encountered when trying to embrace electronic balloting too quickly and without adequate preparation.

I appreciate from previous debates on the Bill in this House that there are differences of opinion about whether electronic balloting is sufficiently safe and secure. Lord Kerslake said that he personally was convinced that the case for it had been made, and we have heard from others in recent minutes that they too are so convinced, but Lord Kerslake was good enough to say that he appreciated that others were not. I remind the House that the Open Rights Group gave evidence to the Speaker’s Commission in which it neatly summed up the concerns over the security of online voting. It stated:

“Voting is a uniquely difficult question for computer science: the system must verify your eligibility;
know whether you have already voted;
and allow for audits and recounts. Yet it must always preserve your anonymity and privacy.”

That was the view of the Open Rights Group, and that is the view that we must investigate more carefully. Lord Kerslake explained that that was why his clause, added to the Bill in the other place, required that a review should be commissioned.

There have already been many reviews looking into this matter, such as those carried out by Electoral Reform Services, WebRoots Democracy and, of course, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. They have made encouraging comments about a move to electronic ballots, but none has been able to provide assurance on managing the risks. While there is still this doubt, I can see merit in exploring the issues further. And of course the important difference is that this review will be specifically in the context of electronic ballots for industrial action. So, in accepting that there should be a review, we accept the spirit of the clause on electronic balloting. In fact, we accept virtually the entirety of the amendment made by the Lords on electronic balloting.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

I understand the position that the Minister is setting out, but I am struggling to understand his logic. If he is saying that electronic balloting is neither secure nor anonymous, is he implying that when Conservative party members vote for a particular candidate online in an internal Tory party election, it is neither secure nor anonymous?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

With the greatest respect, I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that that is an internal election within an independent organisation. We are talking here about statutory elections, which are important because the public has a deep interest in their result and it is quite right that we should hold them to a higher standard than we do others.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

The Minister sounds almost guilty of double standards on this issue. He says that he has accepted the majority of the Lords amendments, but he has neglected to adopt any of those components that require substantial action by the Government. What possible objection could he have to piloting an e-balloting scheme? I think he realises that he just does not have a reasonable argument against it.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

If Opposition Members will just give me a minute, they will be able to hear my argument. Then they can decide whether they think it is reasonable or not.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

No, I am now going to satisfy Opposition Members by setting out my argument, after which I will be happy to give way if they want to comment on it. There is only one element in the amendment made by the House of Lords with which we cannot agree and that is the strategy for roll-out, which prejudges the outcome of the review and irrevocably commits the Secretary of State to press ahead with a strategy for the roll-out of electronic balloting, irrespective of the review’s findings.

The Opposition may not welcome it, but they will be interested to know that there are many examples of where electronic balloting has been tried, but found not to work, and even of where it has had to be rolled back. The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy identified 14 countries that have tried internet voting for binding elections, including five countries—not only the UK, but Finland, the USA, the Netherlands and Spain—which either piloted or fully adopted electronic voting and then decided to discontinue its use.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 3:00 pm, 27th April 2016

I am interested to hear what the Minister says about that. The last Labour Government piloted e-voting, and the Electoral Commission report afterwards indicated that there was no evidence of fraud or other things, but what did for it was the scandal around postal voting in certain areas. There was no evidence in the report that e-voting was any more corrupt or inefficient than any other type of voting.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

If the hon. Gentleman is correct and if there is no problem, the review will conclude so and will report to Parliament that there is—

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

No, I am not going to give way again; I am going to carry on with my argument. The review will report accordingly to the House.

The power to permit electronic balloting already exists in section 54 of the Employment Relations Act 2004, but we have not yet exercised it because we have not been convinced, and neither have any previous Government, including a Labour Government that held office for 13 years, that the system would ensure privacy, opportunity and minimise the risk of fraud and malpractice. There has been much positive progress in the way that technology can help to address such issues, which is reflected in the reports I have cited.

We have been clear that we will be willing to use the power when we are convinced that the concerns have been adequately addressed. The legislation is framed in a way that requires us first to be satisfied on such matters, and for good reason. That is why, instead of a strategy for roll-out, I am today seeking agreement to a statutory requirement for the Government to publish their response to the review, which would be laid before Parliament, making it readily accessible to hon. Members, who could ask questions and raise matters in the House in the usual way.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

Before the Trade Union Bill reached the House of Lords, the Minister wrote a letter to ministerial colleagues that was leaked to the Socialist Worker, for which the Minister may have an explanation. Will he confirm that he will use secondary legislation to put e-balloting in place should the pilot be successful?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

Madam Deputy Speaker, I can assure you that my relations with the Socialist Workers Party or its newspaper are probably rather less good than the hon. Gentleman’s, so it was not through my good offices that it got hold of any document—not that I accept that it did get hold of any document.

The hon. Gentleman asks a reasonable question, and I have made it clear that the Government have no objection in principle and that we expect statutory elections eventually to move towards online voting, but we will do that with trade union strike ballots when we are convinced that such voting is safe. That is why we want an independent review that will report to Parliament. I will not prejudge its outcome, because if I did, it would be slightly pointless to have the review in the first place.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister said before that online voting was okay for the election of the Tory candidate for Mayor of London because the Conservative party is an independent organisation. I hope that he would accept that trade unions are also independent. Did the Tory party carry out a review into how secure the system was before it set up the discussions for having electronic voting for the Tory mayoral candidate?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman heard my previous answer and he must recognise that these are statutory elections. Internal elections for candidates in any party are not statutory. They might be subject to problems, but that is a problem for the organisation, not for the public. The public have a right to expect a higher standard in the consideration of statutory elections.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman; he has had a go. I will give way to the hon. Members for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who have not yet had a go, but all hon. Members are welcome to speak in this debate in their own right, so it would be right to make some progress.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to speak. He says that it might be pointless to have a review and all the other various stages, and I agree with him. A review of the technology is pointless, because it already exists. It has already been mentioned that the Conservative party has used the technology and, as a previous programmer, I can tell the Minister that it already exists and is secure. It has been used not only in various businesses and independent organisations, such as the Conservative party, but in “The X Factor” and various other TV shows. The Minister does not need a report; he just needs to move on to the next stage.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

The hon. Lady is a fan of “The X Factor” and so are many of us, but she will recognise that, important though it is to the public, “The X Factor” is not a statutory election. While I am absolutely happy to acknowledge her expertise, I hope that she will acknowledge the evidence of the Open Rights Group. It is not a Tory front organisation—she can investigate it—but an independent specialist organisation that gave evidence only last year and said that there were specific issues to overcome. She will also have to explain to the review why it is that several countries have experimented with online voting and then reversed the decision because they found it to be unsafe. The review will allow us—

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Defence)

Will the Minister be specific and say how electronic voting is less secure than postal voting, which has additional risks?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

No, I will not be specific, because we are going to set up an independent review involving people with real expertise in the matter. The hon. Lady will be welcome to give evidence to the review, which will produce a report that will be laid before Parliament. She can then interrogate the report and the Government’s response.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Portsmouth South

On the point being made by the Opposition about the Conservative party’s online voting, I found it impossible to get on to the site and was unable to vote for my candidate in the mayoral election. Did my hon. Friend experience the same issue?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I did not have that issue, but that does show that there can be issues with online voting, as there can be with postal voting. While it is not a matter of enormous public interest, because it was not a statutory election, we would be very worried if a statutory election, such as a union strike ballot, was subject to the same level of problems.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

Is the Minister seriously suggesting that whoever is the Conservative party candidate for London Mayor is not a matter of interest to the public? I find his argument bizarre.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I am quite happy to explain again that it is not a statutory election.

The review will allow us to consider again the case for e-balloting and ensure that we have assessed the latest technology. Taken together, the review and the Government’s response will enable the Secretary of State to make a properly informed and transparent decision about the risks of achieving safe, secure electronic balloting, and therefore whether such a system should be rolled out.

Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The Minister has invited us to contribute to the review. I wonder whether he will accept electronic submissions or do we have to get our quills and parchment out?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

The hon. Lady makes a good point—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend John Glen suggests that submissions should be inscribed on vellum, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has a particular enthusiasm for that means of communication, but I prefer the more modern kind, so I suggest that an online submission—perhaps even by WhatsApp—might be appropriate.

Turning to the reserve power to cap facility time, the Government do not agree with the Lords amendment.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

As my hon. Friend knows, I am in favour of electronic voting, but the route that he is taking is the correct one. The one real fear out there, which can be put paid to right now, is that this approach is designed simply to delay the onset of online voting. Will he tell the House that, when the Minister receives the report, it will be dealt with with appropriate dispatch?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution on this and other important matters. He has made a significant contribution to the improvement of this Bill. On his particular question, the amendment that we propose agrees with the noble Lords that this review should be commissioned within six months and then reported to Parliament. I have made it clear that we have no objection in principle to e-balloting. If the review suggests that it is safe to embrace, we will proceed with it. I think he will have noted that the amendment specifically suggests that we should be able to introduce pilots. One issue with the existing provisions is that it might not be possible to do a pilot without going for a full application. Such pilots might well be an appropriate phase after the review has been completed.

Let me return now to facility time and the facility time cap. The Government do not agree with the Lords amendment and, in consequence, I am moving amendment 17, which brings back the reserve cap, but with safeguards that respond to the concerns that were expressed in our debates and that led to the deletion of the clause in the other place and were the subject of quite forensic inquisition in both Houses.

Together with the publication requirements, it is my view that a reserve power to cap facility time to a reasonable level delivers our manifesto commitment to

“tighten the rules around taxpayer-funded paid facility time for union representatives.”

I shall reiterate what I said when this House was previously considering the Bill. We are not seeking to ban facility time. That has never been our intention. Our strong preference is that transparency alone should be enough to change practices in the public sector, with employers voluntarily reducing their costs where they are found to be spending more on facility time than is reasonable.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

The Minister is being very generous. In the aforementioned leaked memo to which I referred earlier, there was an indication that there would be concessions and discussions with the devolved Administrations in relation to facility time. Will he confirm whether consultations have taken place with the devolved Administrations, or whether it is his intention to dictate to the devolved Administrations what the facility time should be for their own workforce?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I never comment on articles in the Socialist Worker. He will also understand that we have regular conversations with Ministers in the devolved Administrations, but all of the matters addressed in this Bill are reserved matters. It is a matter not of dictating, but of this Government fulfilling their duty to legislate on the matters for which we have exclusive responsibility.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

Specifically on the point about devolved powers, is it not the case that in that letter the Minister received legal advice saying that there is a very weak case for enforcing those powers on the Welsh Government?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

The hon. Lady, who made an admirable and, for me, rather challenging contribution to our deliberations in Committee, knows that we do not comment on legal advice.

If publication, and the proper monitoring and recording that it necessitates, do not achieve the aim of bringing excessive spending on facility time back down to a reasonable level, it will be necessary to consider the imposition of a cap. A reserve power is very much a power of last resort.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I wish to explain what we are now proposing, because it is a little different from what we proposed previously. I will give way to him before I conclude on the facility time cap.

A reserve power is very much a power of last resort. Although our amendment 17 brings back the reserve power, we are not simply replicating the provision that this House considered previously and that was deleted from the Bill in the other place. The amendment before the House today incorporates a number of safeguards that will trigger how and when the reserve power to cap facility time would be exercised. We have listened to the concerns of Members of this House and the other place and have sought to address those concerns in the amendment.

The published data under the facility time publication requirements in this Bill will provide valuable information about levels of spending across the public sector and inform decisions about what should be regarded as a reasonable level of spend on facility time, taking into account the needs of the relevant sector as well as the particular circumstances of individual employers within the sector.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

Let me finish this bit, because I am trying to explain what is different about what we doing. I will then be very happy to give way to my hon. Friend.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

Of course.

It is our intention that exercise of the reserve power will not even be considered before there are at least two years of data from the bodies subject to the publication requirement. Following the publication of the second year’s data, should a particular employer’s facility time be a cause for concern, having regard to all relevant factors, the Minister will send and publish a letter to the employer drawing attention to the concerns. The employer will have the opportunity to set out the reasons for the level of facility time. They will then have at least a further year from the date the Minister notifies it of concerns to make progress on its facility time levels. Nothing will be done until a third year’s data have been published. Only then will the Minister be at liberty to exercise the reserve power and make regulations to cap facility time for those employers.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Opposition Whip (Commons)

A person who enjoys facility time will spend a lot of that time trying to manage huge reorganisations and redundancies, most of which are the responsibility of the Minister’s former Government. Can he explain what he means when he says things such as “excessive” and “reasonable”? Over the past four years, Gateshead council has lost 48% of its budget and 2,000 people have been made redundant. People have been engaged day and night, trying to redeploy and retrain people. How on earth is a Minister in Whitehall going to be able to pull all that together and say, “Well, that works for them, but it does not work for others.”? It is nonsense.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

The hon. Gentleman is right. What is reasonable can vary according to the organisation and the situation of that organisation, which is why we want to collect two years of data before we establish what seems to be a reasonable level by looking at comparable organisations. I will come on to the fact that we will also be creating the possibility of removing the cap from an organisation if it has a particular situation, such as the one that he describes, that would justify a much higher level of spending on the different kinds of facility time.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

What my hon. Friend is trying to make explicit is that, across the trade union movement there are shop stewards who do an excellent job, day in, day out, but there are some situations where the facility time is taken advantage of. One merely has to think of Grangemouth. Can he be clear on this? He has struck the right balance in the way that he looks at things, but at no time has he said that all shop stewards are swinging the lead or that a lot of valuable work goes on.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I am very happy to confirm and applaud what my hon. Friend said. In truth, I would be as worried if an organisation was declaring no spending on facility time as if it was declaring excessive spending on facility time. Helping people with training or with health and safety issues is not just appropriate, but vital in a well-run organisation. He will recognise, as will Members across the House, that there have been agencies and Departments—we have had direct dealings of this within the civil service—that were allowing an abuse of the system. We want to restore confidence in the system by making it clear that we need transparency. If there is still excessive behaviour, we will introduce a cap.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

In order to try to help the House understand why you feel that there is a need for this cap on facility time, could you tell the House what percentage of public sector employers excessively grant facility time and how many of them would this cap be beneficial in stopping?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I am not at all sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you feel that there is a need for a cap, but I think the hon. Gentleman was referring to me.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Let us clear that up. Tommy Sheppard will get used to the fact that if one says “you”, that means me. If one says “the hon. Gentleman”, that means the Minister.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that for your sake I should clarify that.

The hon. Gentleman asks a very reasonable question, but I hope he understands that until we have applied the transparency clause, we do not know the current level of spending across the broader public sector, so we cannot judge which organisations are spending in excess.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

No, I will finish. We know that when we introduced a similar provision in the civil service, we found that some organisations were acting perfectly responsibly and others were allowing an abuse of the system, hence we introduced a cap in the civil service. That has saved the taxpayer money and has not in any way undermined the proper fulfilment of responsibilities by trade union representatives. I shall now make some progress—

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

The Minister is indulgent. I appreciate his generosity. Given some of the rhetoric from some of his ministerial colleagues and others about the matter, does he recognise that people might have a reasonable suspicion that even after collecting the data, the Government might seek to use these powers perniciously, going after particular groups whose practices they are not happy with, rather than using the powers in the way that he describes? Does he accept that that is a reasonable suspicion?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I do not. After all, I am the Minister and I will be in charge of this until the Prime Minister decides otherwise. The hon. Gentleman has had enough time to judge whether or not I am sincere. He will also note that in the amended proposals that we are putting forward today, there have to be three years’ data before we can introduce a cap, and that where there is some concern about the level of spending we have to allow the organisation an opportunity to explain why that level of spending is appropriate. That responds in part to what Mr Anderson said. Partly through the good offices of hon. Members in this House and in the other place, there are now greater safeguards to ensure that there can be no abuses.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I am a bit confused about what the cost will be of a Minister or civil servants sitting down and sifting through mountains of data from every council and every public body covered by the provision to determine whether facility time has been abused, when from his own lips the Minister has just admitted that he does not know whether there has been any abuse. If there is not a problem, why are we bringing in this expensive system that is impossible to regulate?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I do not accept that it will be expensive. Although there are no data because the transparency clauses have not yet been applied, I point the hon. Gentleman to estimates that the public sector as a whole spends on average 0.14% of its total pay bill on facility time, the civil service spends 0.07%—half of that—and the private sector spends 0.04%. I can promise him that if he multiplies the pay bill of the public sector by that percentage, he will arrive at a very large figure indeed, and a great deal more than the cost of implementing these clauses.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I have been generous and I will be generous again, but I shall try to make some progress.

As I indicated, the amendment provides that the cap may be disapplied for as long as necessary and to the extent necessary for individual employers. This would enable a temporary lifting of the cap for one or more specific employers, and we propose to use it in circumstances where the employer and Ministers consider it necessary. We envisage that should a particular employer experience a need for more facility time, perhaps during a period of change or following a particular incident, Ministers can allow this so that facility time can be increased to respond to the circumstance. The reserve power that this amendment would deliver is considerably improved from the version that was deleted in the other place, and I urge the House to support it. I commend the amendments to the House.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I want to make it clear right at the outset that we remain opposed to this Bill. Despite some of the changes that it has undergone in another place, it remains a dreadful, mean-spirited, partisan, petty piece of legislation. Having got that off my chest, I recognise that Members in another place have made a valiant attempt to make a silk purse out of this particularly malformed sow’s ear, so that after today it may end up being a slightly less ugly sow’s ear than it was, but it will remain a malodorous porcine lug, for all their lordships’ noble efforts.

Many of the changes that peers made are welcome if we consider the crudeness of the Bill in its original form. On the first group of Lords amendments and the Government’s response to them, Lords amendment 2 was passed in the other place by 320 votes to 181, requiring the Government to commission a review of electronic voting in industrial action ballots within six months of Royal Assent. After the review, amendment 2 would require the Government to publish a strategy for rolling out electronic voting.

Government amendment (a) would revise Lords amendment 2 so that Ministers are required only to publish a response to the review, but need not take further action to actually introduce e-balloting. The Government have consistently resisted e-balloting on the grounds that they still had concerns about the safety of electronic voting, despite the fact, as many hon. Members have pointed out, that the Conservative party used electronic ballots for the selection of its London mayoral candidate, although I suppose the Conservatives may now be regretting that, given the poor performance of the candidate they selected using that method. Perhaps that explains the Government’s concern.

It is clear that the Government’s real objection to e-balloting and, indeed, to workplace balloting, which we argued for unsuccessfully in this House and in the other place, has been that they do not want high turnouts because their new threshold barriers could be more easily reached if more people were more easily able to vote.

Not only will all ballots for industrial action require a minimum 50% turnout under the Bill, but those working in the loosely defined “important public services group” will face an additional hurdle of needing a 40% yes vote from all those eligible to vote. That means that these thresholds place higher requirements on those industrial action ballots than on any other democratic process within the UK. For example, the 50% turnout threshold was not reached for the last London Mayoral election or most local government and devolved elections.

The Government have agreed that Ministers should be required to commission an independent review of the use of e-ballots for industrial action within six months of Royal Assent. They have agreed that it will be possible to run pilots as part of that review, as the Minister said, but the Government are proposing that after the review Ministers would need to publish a response, but not necessarily to take any further action. There would be no requirement to publish a strategy for rolling out electronic voting.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

Is there not a slight concern that this is just a delaying tactic by the Government, who do not intend to introduce these measures? Given that in 2016 many people are quite used to banking online, registering to vote online and submitting their tax returns online, do not questions about security and anonymity fall by the wayside?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 3:30 pm, 27th April 2016

I know the Minister, and I take him at his word when he says that that is not his intention and that this is not a delaying tactic. However, to coin a phrase, he is a here today, gone tomorrow Minister—I say that from experience, as a former Minister—and somebody else may well occupy his place in the future. That person may not have the good intentions the Minister has outlined to the House today, and we must legislate for that possibility, rather than assume that somebody with good will is going to occupy his seat in perpetuity.

The Government propose that they would not have to publish a strategy after the review. Let me be clear: their amendment is not necessary. I accept that they have moved a long way in accepting the review, the pilots, the requirement to lay a report before Parliament, the need to consult experts and to get advice and recommendations, and the need to commission a report within six months of passing the Act. Those changes are significant, and they go part of the way towards achieving what we have argued for right from the start, as well as achieving most of what was agreed in the other place with cross-Bench support.

Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

As someone who, along with other colleagues, including my right hon. Friend Mr Davis, considers that electronic balloting is probably the right way to go, may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman welcomes the progress the Minister and the Government have made in that direction? I believe that the Minister, and indeed any future Minister, although I hope this Minister remains in his place for a long time, will ensure that the evidence is looked at and that, provided it shows that electronic balloting is the right way to go, which I very much hope it does, we will go forward with it.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Obviously I cannot comment on how long the Minister will remain in his post—we will see what happens in the forthcoming reshuffle. However, I did recognise the movement the Government have made, although I made it clear that their amendment to their lordships’ amendment is unnecessary and that the whole matter could have been dealt with in a much more straightforward manner. However, we are where we are, having received these amendments from the Lords, and those are all that we can discuss today.

Ultimately, it is inconceivable that any Minister, having received a report on how e-balloting could be introduced safely, would then deny trade union members the opportunity to participate in a ballot using modern electronic communications. The only possible reason for Ministers at that future point to reject an expert report outlining the appropriate way to introduce modern technology into ballots and to offer the opportunity for easier participation in a democratic vote would be a desire to suppress turnout.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

The hon. Gentleman comes right to the point. He does not have to rely on the good will of this Minister, who I am sure will be in the Cabinet in six months. The reason I asked the Minister to outline at the Dispatch Box the Government’s intent on receipt of the report was that, if another Minister were ever tempted not to follow the explicit policy line we have now, the hon. Gentleman and I could hold that Minister to account in this Chamber.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I do not know whether future Prime Minister Gove will appoint the Minister to the Cabinet—we shall have to wait and see—but the right hon. Gentleman is exactly right. That is why the Government’s amendment is unnecessary and dilutes the effect of accepting the rest of this Lords amendment. However, I am seeking to put on record the fact that, should any future Minister take another path, having had a clear recommendation in the report, one could only interpret their intentions as less than honourable.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Could you advise me whether it is in order for the House to spend quite so much time talking about my career prospects, because I do not feel that that is really helping?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am happy to leave the Minister alone for the rest of the debate, apart from on the issues we are discussing.

If any Minister did take the path I described, there would obviously be considerable anger and opposition from not just the Labour party but other parties and Members of the other place, who worked so hard to craft this amendment on electronic balloting. In practice, I think the momentum for e-balloting will be unstoppable if the report is published and comes to the conclusions we think it will. However, we prefer the Lords amendment, and we will seek to keep it in the Bill this afternoon.

Let me move on to the other part of this group of amendments, which includes Lords amendment 17, on facility time, the Government’s motion to disagree with it, and their proposed additions to clause 13—should the House decide to reinstate it by voting to disagree with the Lords. The Lords passed amendment 17 by 248 votes to 160, removing Ministers’ power to impose a cap on union facilities by deleting clause 13. The Government have tabled a motion to disagree with Lords amendment 17 so that they can restore their ability to impose a cap on facilities. They have proposed a further amendment to amend the reinstated clause in line with assurances they gave in the Lords, providing that no cap could be imposed for the first three years after the new reporting requirements on facilities came into force.

Before Ministers could impose a cap they would need to review the published data on facilities, the cost of facilities for the relevant employer, the nature of the services run by the public authority, any particular factors relevant to the employer, and other related matters. They would also need to consider the type of organisation and any relevant factors—for example, if the organisation was facing a major restructure. If the Minister had concerns about the level of facilities in a particular public authority, under the Government’s proposed provisions he would need to write to the employer expressing those concerns.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

What is having to review all this information going to cost the taxpayer? The Minister skated over that. Surely if it is to be done thoroughly and effectively it will come at great cost to the taxpayer.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Indeed. Given that the Government’s stated purpose in doing this is to look after the interests of the taxpayer, it is ironic that what my hon. Friend says is exactly the case.

As I said, we are dealing with what we have got back from the Lords. We would not have wished this provision to remain in the Bill at all. We support the Lords amendment to remove it from the Bill completely, and I am setting out to the House the consequences of not doing so.

The original clause 13 included a reserve power for Ministers to introduce regulations imposing an arbitrary cap on the amount of time that union reps in the public sector can spend in the workplace improving health and safety standards, promoting learning and training opportunities, consulting on redundancies or on TUPE transfers, negotiating better pay and conditions, and even representing members in grievances and disciplinary hearings. We agree with the Lords that the clause on facility time should have been removed from the Bill altogether. It is an unnecessary interference in the conduct of good industrial relations. It also goes against the Government’s professed desire to support devolution, as other hon. Members have pointed out, including Chris Stephens and my hon. Friend and neighbour Jo Stevens. As the Minister will know, it is being resisted by the devolved Administrations.

We acknowledge, however, that significant advances have been made in Government amendment (a). We support the Lords and want this clause removed from the Bill, but if the House decides not to do so, Government amendment (a) will at least make some improvement to a proposal that should never have appeared in the first place.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I should like to speak to amendment (a) to Lords amendment 2. I hope my comments are met in the spirit in which I hope to make them.

I want to outline a frustration that I expressed on Second Reading when I spoke about turnout thresholds within the private sector. In my remarks, I made it clear that trade unions have a very important part to play in the workplace, whether on health and safety, bullying, contract renegotiations regarding a change in working practices or funding, or many such issues. It is wrong to be seen not to appreciate the work that trade unions do. Indeed, as I said earlier, many shop stewards in this country do an outstanding job. I had experience of that when I was a member of Unite, with some excellent shop stewards who worked very well.

I also said on Second Reading that I was not keen on turnout thresholds in the private sector, because, as I outlined, the threshold to go on strike in the private sector is much higher than in the public sector. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it may be, when people go on strike in the public sector, there will generally always be a job to go back to because it is being funded largely by Government through taxation, whereas in the private sector the same threshold cannot be guaranteed, especially in smaller business. If a workforce withdraws its labour, it has gone through a much higher threshold, in its own mind, in perhaps putting at risk the ongoing viability of the company. Therefore, taking strike action in those circumstances means, first, that the conditions that have led to that strike must be very bad, and, secondly, that there has been a complete breakdown of relations between the shop stewards and the owners of those companies.

On Second Reading, I cited Grunwick in the 1970s. I repeat that I do not support the Conservative party’s attempts in the 1970s to break the strike in that company, run by George Ward, because people were working in appalling conditions. Strike action was taken to try to improve conditions that would be unacceptable today. As I said previously, I applaud the last Labour Government for introducing a legal requirement to allow a trade union to operate in the workplace if that is the wish of members of staff.

I therefore hope hon. Members understand my regret that movement was not made on turnout thresholds in the private sector. The flip side of that is that I believe that it is right to have a turnout threshold in the public sector.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many trade unions have thresholds in their rule books to ensure that a certain percentage of members must vote? When I was a full-time official, my union, the GMB, had a threshold. It is therefore not the case that the threshold is uniform across all unions or businesses.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I accept that, but as the hon. Gentleman says, the threshold is not uniform, and in the public sector it is right to have a threshold for taking action when there is a lot of employment protection in terms of having jobs to go back to.

Although I have regrets about the threshold for the private sector, I believe that electronic balloting will lead to higher turnouts and will meet strike thresholds, and as long as the system is secure and can be seen to be genuine, it is the right thing to do. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to apply the policy as quickly as possible because that will enable the private sector to meet the thresholds more easily than perhaps it can now.

There is a balance to be struck. There needs to be some control on those in the public sector who cause great disruption to people who work in the private sector who may not enjoy the terms and conditions that they do. I unreservedly support thresholds in the public sector, but I do not have the same regard for them in the private sector. Hon. Members can refer back to Hansard and my comments on Second Reading, which explain my views further.

The Government’s approach to electronic balloting is right. When it can be proved to be safe and reliable, it should be introduced because I believe the Bill will have the unintended consequence of having a bigger effect on union members in the private sector than on union members in the public sector.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my trade union activity in the past 20 years.

In the past few days in the media, we have seen the performance of somersaults of Olympian proportions, and I commend Ministers for that. Having voted down sensible amendments in Committee and on Third Reading to allow alternative methods of voting in industrial action ballots, Ministers found themselves so out of step on the work and organisation of trade unions that even arch-Thatcherites such as Lord Michael Forsyth are friends of the workers by comparison. If I were a member of the Conservative party, I would be very worried about that.

I welcome this minor change. As we have argued previously, if e-balloting is good enough for the Conservative party to elect its candidate for London Mayor, surely it is good enough for trade unions to use when making their choices. As Lord Cormack said in the other place,

“I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government are arguing against a system that the Conservative Party felt was good enough for the selection of a candidate for London Mayor”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2016;
Vol. 769, c. 1861.]

I listened carefully to the reasons the Minister gave for the decision to let the Conservative party use that system, but not the trade unions. I gently say to him that if a vote was taken on who out of the trade unions and the current Mayor of London had disrupted the public’s lives more, I do not think that the answer would be what the Government would hope.

Online balloting is more accessible and inclusive. We firmly believe that access to electronic balloting will enhance engagement and participation, as more people use electronic devices to communicate every day.

Frankly, we cannot fathom the suggestion that online balloting is unsafe and insecure. Mrs Drummond said that she had difficulty accessing the ballot. I wanted to ask her a number of questions. Did the email with the accompanying link to the ballot paper say, “If you press this link, the website may be unsafe and insecure”? Perhaps it said, “Clicking this link may lead to a fraudulent act.” What does that mean for Zac Goldsmith? Is he unsafe and insecure—some Government Members are nodding their heads—or is it only Conservative party members who have access to safe and secure emails? Do Conservative party members have more privileges than an American Express gold card offers? That is what the trade union movement and members are asking themselves. Why is there one rule for them and another for the rest of us?

The difficulty with postal balloting—the Minister has been pressed on this before—is that the number of post boxes across the UK has reduced by 17% in the past 10 years, so it is more difficult for people to participate in a postal ballot.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities) 3:45 pm, 27th April 2016

Given the increase in postal charges in recent years, does my hon. Friend agree that it also costs more to do postal balloting?

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

Yes, I agree. I also take the view that postal balloting prolongs the length of a dispute because of the time it takes to conduct such a ballot. Electronic balloting allows for greater flexibility and efficiency.

Like Kevin Brennan, we are disappointed that the pilot will not extend to workplace balloting as a secure option, because that would increase democracy in the workplace. The TUC has previously argued that there is no evidence that workers feel intimidated into voting a particular way when ballots take place in the workplace, as has been argued by the Government.

Although the Government have accepted the need to commission an independent review on the use of e-ballots for industrial action, their amendment (a) effectively means that Ministers would only have to publish a response to the review. They would, therefore, not be obligated to introduce a strategy to roll out electronic voting. That is simply unacceptable.

Lords amendment 2 is actually very moderate. The question is whether the Government’s response is good enough or whether it weakens the intent behind the Lords amendment. Having listened carefully to the Minister, we can only conclude that Government amendment (a) does weaken the other place’s intention.

The Government propose to revise the Lords amendment in such a way that Ministers would be required only to publish a response, but they would not need to take any action. That underlines what the Government intend to do after the e-balloting review. They intend to do nothing: there will be no strategy on how to proceed and, therefore, no actual commitment to allowing electronic balloting in the future. That is absurd. If the Government were truly intent on modernising the law, they would allow for electronic balloting and secure workplace balloting. I would be interested in the Minister’s response to that. Our view is clear. Electronic balloting will modernise the law, promoting democracy and inclusion.

We have always been clear that the clause on facility time is completely unnecessary and unwanted. Having such a clause in the Bill signals intent: the Government’s intent to interfere with the facility time arrangements—the basic industrial relations arrangements—not only of devolved Administrations but of local authorities across the United Kingdom. As Lord Kerslake put it in the other place,

“The Government are saying that the costs should be transparently known and proportionate to the benefits…However, this is fully secured…through Clause 12. There is no need for the reserve powers contained in Clause 13.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2016;
Vol. 769, c. 1905.]

He further stated:

“If, however, the public body is a local authority, it has its own democratic mandate and is answerable to its own electorate for the cost. Given the immense financial pressures now on local authorities, do we really think that they are incapable of making this judgment?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2016;
Vol. 769, c. 1906.]

Although we acknowledge that some amendments have been made by the Government, that is simply not good enough. Any attempt by the UK Government to instruct devolved institutions on how to treat their workers should be robustly resisted. Facility time allows union representatives to spend time in the workplace improving the safety and health of their workers. Representatives also promote training opportunities and negotiate better pay, terms and conditions for employers, among many other roles and responsibilities. Limiting the ability of unions to play such a role in our public sector will have a damaging impact on public sector workers across the United Kingdom.

Trade unions are key social partners, which play an important role in sustaining effective democracy in society, particularly in the workplace. The existence of good employment practices is a key contributor to economic competitiveness and social justice. In Scotland, the SNP Government have taken a different approach. We have taken a modern and progressive approach to industrial relations and believe that trade unions are at the heart of achieving fair work. The UK Government should work with trade unions in a social partnership approach rather than launching yet more attacks against them.

Industrial relations mechanisms should be agreed at a devolved or local level. It beggars belief that the UK Government do not believe that a legislative consent motion is required for a UK Minister to dictate policy in these areas. The detail of much of the Bill is set out in regulations, and there will be no formal opportunity for the Scottish Government or the Welsh Government to influence such regulations. Today, we need a commitment from the UK Government that the rights of workers across the UK will not be restricted by the imposition of facility time.

In Committee, Stephen Doughty asked the Minister whether the Health Secretary would

“make regulations that affect facility time in the health services of Scotland and Wales, which are wholly devolved and under the control of Health Ministers in those countries”.

The Minister replied, “Yes,” but stressed that

“health policy and the management of the NHS in those countries will remain…in the control of the Governments” ––[Official Report, Trade Union Public Bill Committee, 22 October 2015;
c. 347.]

He was referring to the Governments of the devolved Administrations. I said at the time:

“Having only just debated Evel last week, it seems that the UK Government now want to dictate to devolved administrations”.

On 2 February, the Minister said that the Government would not change the proposals on facility time and check-off provisions in the Bill. However, the infamous letter referred to earlier of 26 January—the letter was leaked by the Socialist Worker newspaper and published widely in other media outlets—contained a number of concessions that the Government proposed to make to the Bill in the House of Lords. Those concessions included giving devolved Administrations the right to maintain facility time and check-off arrangements. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm today that devolved Administrations will maintain that control over facility time. The SNP will continue to push to derail any attempt by the UK Government to dictate to Scotland and other devolved Administrations how they should treat their public sector workers.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

First, I declare an interest as a member of the GMB. My wife also works for a trade union.

We often hear the cry from Conservative Members that the turnout in union ballots is not high enough. We have before us a mechanism that would at least assist with that, by getting more people to participate in e-balloting. I have seen some pretty poor excuses for statements, but today’s statement about why we cannot introduce e-balloting for trade union ballots must win the prize for the poorest argument.

This Government pride themselves on wanting to be an e-Government on everything from driving licences to the new universal credit, which can only be accessed online. The Minister said the Government need to be convinced that e-balloting would be secure, but in response to numerous interventions from Labour Members, he did not articulate the reasons why he thought the process was in any way insecure. I would respect his position more if he came up with reasons and said what the problems are. The idea of a review is clearly the classic civil service “kick it into the long grass” approach.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I do not want to take up time because lots of Members want to speak, but may I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to elections conducted in the Philippines? Interestingly, a company called Smartmatic—chaired by a former Labour Minister, his colleague Lord Malloch-Brown—was put in charge of conducting online voting for the entire population of the Philippines. There was a hack, in which the identity data of 70 million people were stolen, and a report said that every registered voter’s data were open to abuse.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I know this Government love things foreign, but may I tell the Minister, with great respect, that he need not go very far to find examples of where e-voting has worked and there have not been any problems? I am referring to the pilots that took place in 2004, including in my constituency and others in the north-east, after which the Electoral Commission’s report found no problems with e-voting. He will obviously want to go on a fact-finding trip to the Philippines to look at this—I am sure we would all welcome his going there—but the fact is that he just needs to look at has happened in this country.

I must say that the Minister put up the very flimsy defence to the question, “If it’s all right for the Conservative party, why is it not all right for the trade union movement?” I would have respected his position if he had come up with concrete reasons why he thought electronic—[Interruption.] Well, he cites the Philippines, but has he actually looked at the Electoral Commission’s report on e-voting in 2004? It quite clearly stated that there was no issue of fraud or any risk to security. The fact that the Government then got cold feet about what I must say was a rather hysterical campaign against postal voting is neither here nor there.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

That has been said not just by the Electoral Commission, but by the Electoral Reform Society, which is obviously expert in e-voting. It has certainly conducted a number of internal elections for the Labour party using e-voting, and it would be quite capable of running similar elections for the trade union movement.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Minister backed himself into a corner by saying that such votes were so important that they could not be done electronically. Let us look, for example, at foundation trusts, which elect their governors by electronic voting and are quite happy that such a system is secure. The Minister may think that that is not very important, but my constituents certainly think that choosing those who run their local hospital and have a lot of powers in my area is a pretty important decision.

My hon. Friend is right that electronic voting is used by many organisations, including private companies and charities, to consult their members. Organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, which are used by many bodies to conduct ballots, whether in electronic or postal form, not only have a track record of impartiality and strict adherence, but are respected not just in this country but internationally—the Minister is interested in international comparisons—so it is pretty pathetic to say we need more evidence.

The other weakness in the Government’s argument is that I am not convinced that, once they have had this so-called review, they will actually implement the proposal. The proposal came from the trade unions, and I congratulate the general secretaries and others who have backed it. It would be a move forward by improving access to voting for trade union members and by improving the situation.

I turn briefly to the facility time cap. This one is remarkable. The Minister quite clearly stated that he did not know what the abuse was. If he does not know what it is, why is he trying to fix it? We all know why—it is a way of attacking the trade unions. I will give him a chance to say this, but he has not demonstrated what the cap system they have come up with will cost. It will mean sifting through all the various organisations and then going into detail, because those organisations will individually have to justify why they need facility time. It is a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

I agree with what Chris Stephens said about devolution. This Bill is another example of this Government saying that they are committed to devolution and to giving decisions to local authorities, but then doing exactly the opposite and dictating to local authorities what they should and should not do. With democratically accountable organisations, these things should be up to the electorates to decide.

There is another important issue that the Minister did not touch on. It is all right to argue about whether people can use facility time, but, in these so-called reports that are going to be done, no indication is going to be given of what money is saved by organisations such as local councils because they have good industrial relations and can ensure that, for example, when redundancies are needed that can be done efficiently.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Defence) 4:00 pm, 27th April 2016

I wish to challenge the Government about the way in which they are handling the Lords amendments. They need to be clearly scrutinised to make sure that there is evidence behind what is said, as today is yet another example of a Government who are evidence light when putting their proposals before Parliament.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Defence)

I will just quickly declare an interest first. I am a member of Unite and of the GMB, and was a Unite official for 17 years.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Shadow Minister (Treasury), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Does my hon. Friend agree that the evidential basis for the entire Bill has been non-existent throughout its passage through Parliament? Levels of industrial action are at historical lows in the UK. The days of work lost per year to strikes are down 90% since the 1980s.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank my hon. Friend for making those points, and in particular, the point that levels of industrial action are at an all-time low. The industrial action that is occurring is in the public sector, where the Government are failing to negotiate with the trade unions, as we see today with the junior doctors. We have to examine why we are in the situation that we are in, but the evidence does not sit on the Government’s side.

I have overseen many industrial action ballots, including paper ballots and electronic indicative ballots. There is greater engagement with electronic balloting. There is a reason for that—it is convenient. It is also far more accurate. We do not have the same issues as with paper ballots, because in electronic ballots it is very clear whether a vote is a yes or a no, whereas other forms of voting can be more ambiguous—we all experience that on election night. The intention of the person voting is very clear in an electronic ballot.

I put this challenge to the Minister. He has talked about his tour of the world, but we are talking about ballots here in the UK and an evidence base from the UK. That evidence is overwhelming; I would say that it shows 100% security of electronic balloting. Other countries may not have such rigour in their processes, so it is inappropriate to bring them into the equation. It was very telling that the Minister was unable to say why it was less safe to use electronic ballots than postal ballots because the evidence simply is not there.

It is also important that the Government acknowledge the temperature of industrial relations, in the public sector in particular. People express a view about decisions that have been made on terms and conditions because it is essential that the Government respond to that. High turnouts will help inform the Government in their decision-making processes. They are vital.

Like many of my colleagues, I point out that the Government depend on electronic means for matters that I would say are far more serious: tax returns, local government council tax collection, driving licence applications and registering to vote in a parliamentary election are all done electronically. We know that many—if not all—bank transfers of millions of pounds in which the Government engage are done electronically, so why does a vote of an independent trade union require even more vigour than processes that the Government already use? It does not add up, other than to say that the Government are using this as a political tool.

The Labour party does not have confidence in the Government’s intentions for the process of review and roll-out for electronic balloting, and they should set out the timetable for that review. They say that it will start in six months, but when will it end, how long will it last, and how will it lead positively to a roll-out? We must start enabling trade unions now to provide and build up evidence from the pilots, which they can then run in parallel to prove that electronic voting is safe, accurate, and gets a clear result on the intentions of workers over a dispute.

There is no evidence behind what the Minister said about a facilities time cap. Let us consider the cost of administration, and the time taken up by ministerial hands to review what has been put together. How many personnel will be involved? Will a whole unit be set up for that three-year review? What about public sector employers who will also need to dedicate a lot of time to provide evidence for that review? That will be time that they do not have because, as we know, they are already challenged with the cuts in local government, the NHS and elsewhere. How will they find the resources to supply the Minister with the information that he will then scrutinise for hours and hours, day and night, before assessing whether there have been excessive costs?

How will the Minister balance the minuscule cost of facility time with the amount of money that trade unions save through employers not going to employment tribunals or having such high sickness levels, and by so much value being added to organisations through increased productivity? I would like a response. How will the Minister assess the cost of health, safety, learning, and all the value that trade union reps bring?

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

At every stage of this Bill I have asked what great calamity there is in our land’s industrial relations that requires us to bring forward new primary legislation. I have yet to receive an answer, because of course there is none. This proposal is unique among many that we have considered in this House, because it is not a proposal to change public policy as a result of a problem that has been identified in society; the proposal before the House is motivated purely by the ideology of factions inside the Conservative party that have scores to settle, and whose antipathy towards the trade unions is manifest.

Some Conservative Members—they are not in their place at the moment—do not share that view, but overall that is where the centre of political gravity lies in the party of government. It is setting itself an attitude that will inform public policy on trade unions that is not shared by almost any other Government in Europe, or in the advanced capitalist world. Why are the Government going so far out on a limb to set themselves apart from everyone else? I accept that the Bill is now slightly less bad than it was on Second Reading, but we should be under no doubt that this is still very much an anti-trade union Bill.

This Bill is designed to curtail the expression, capacity and effectiveness of free trade unions in our country, and I must speculate about whether this is a genuine change of heart on behalf of the Government, or whether other factors may be involved in their consideration of how many fronts they can fight on at once. I wonder whether the proximity of 23 June and the referendum that will happen then have persuaded the Government that they should try not to engage in too large a conflict with the trade unions of this land, because they need their support in order to secure the Government’s position of staying in the EU. That is why we all want to see the words written down in black and white, rather than accept the spoken words of Ministers from the Dispatch Box at this time.

I am glad to say that the situation is different in Scotland. As my hon. Friend Chris Stephens explained, the Scottish Government are committed to working in partnership with the trade unions of Scotland to try to build our economy towards prosperity. We believe that trade unions are a vital component of civil society. If my party is re-elected next week, we are pledged to do everything we can within the law to compromise the provisions of this Bill and to prevent them from frustrating the operation of free trade unions.

I shall engage with two further issues under consideration. The first is e-ballots. When the Government first announced their attitude to e-balloting, it sounded very much like an analogue Government in an digital age and that they were scared of the possibility of e-balloting. It is a matter of some irony, is it not, that it takes such a contemporary, modern and forward-looking institution as the House of Lords to try to persuade the Government of the error of their ways? I accept what the Minister said and I accept the Government’s position that they have moved slightly on this issue. They can no longer defend the indefensible, which would be to say that they would not allow electronic balloting in a society where it is now commonplace and the norm for most of our citizens.

I see you looking at me, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I shall try to be as quick as I can. We are concerned when the Minister tries to give himself a get-out clause. If he had come up with an amendment saying that e-balloting would go ahead unless it could be shown that there were clear and demonstrable problems for its introduction and roll-out, we might have had more sympathy with him. What he is trying to achieve, however, is to give himself a get-out clause to prevent this from happening in the future. In a post-referendum situation, he might not be so well disposed to favouring the trade unions.

The Minister also provided what I think is a thin defence when he spoke about this being a statutory matter. It is statutory only in the sense that trade unions operate within the framework of legislation—but so do charities, private companies and indeed political parties. As I say, I find that to be a very thin defence.

Finally, I want to make a point about the cap on facility time. I have witnessed some bizarre debates in this Chamber, but frankly, this one borders on the surreal. We are being asked to pass legislation to try to prevent something that the Minister accepts we do not even know exists. This is fantasy legislation and fantasy law-making. I think we should reject the proposal for a facility time cap, support the Lords amendments, reject the Government’s attempts to weaken them and, if we get the chance, finally vote against this anti-trade union legislation.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I shall be brief. I welcome the Government’s shift in position, particularly on check-off. I do not believe that check-off has any intrinsic costs to employers. For many public sector organisations, this is literally a check in a box on the payroll system. I view the shift of view as testament to the hard work of thousands of ordinary working people who take on additional responsibilities as shop stewards in their own time to support and protect their fellow workers’ rights—a task for which they are often thanked neither by their co-workers nor their employers, yet they sometimes go above and beyond in their role.

Trade unions have a proud history of internationalism, and tomorrow is International Workers Memorial day—a day strongly supported by the TUC, the trade union movement as a whole, lawyers and the Health and Safety Executive. I mention this because I shall not be able to attend tomorrow’s events. I would like to pay tribute to Herbert Styles, the former Unite representative and Blue Star Fibres worker who religiously organises this event sequentially in Immingham, Grimsby and Cleethorpes.

This is a growing event, with greater attendance every year by families who are deeply grateful for the work Herbert puts in. Time is taken to remember those who have lost their lives in the course of their day-to-day work. I shall not be there to lay a wreath tomorrow, but Jonathan Spurr will be there in my place to do so. I would like to see this day recorded on our calendars. Can the Minister do anything to assist in recognising the role of trade unions and workers and those who lose their lives in the course of their day-to-day work. Can he help to get this recorded in calendars and diaries across the UK?

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:15 pm, 27th April 2016

This is supposed to be about modernising —that is the word the Minister used—ballots, but it is really about trying to limit people’s ability to take strike action. Let us be honest: he knows that if electronic balloting was allowed, the turnouts would go up, way beyond the limits set out. The lights have come on in the Conservative party and it has realised that it has set itself a trap and walked into it. In a situation where the Government are trying to stop people being able to take industrial action by setting ludicrous limits, they have set a precedent and had a debate that says, “If you are genuine, let us have as many people participating as possible.” Let us look at the history on this issue. In the 1980s, the Tory Government tried to control the right of people to take legitimate industrial action under the law and were told, “If you do away with workforce ballots, you will reduce the turnout.” The facts and figures have proved that for more than 30 years; the average turnout in workplace ballots was 80% but now if you get 40% now you are doing well.

The proposals on facility time show the real ignorance of the Conservative party, tied to its arrogance; it just does not know what goes on in the workplace. Let me give two examples. In 1986, I spent every day for a fortnight visiting a man in hospital, 30 miles away from his workplace. He had been buried under 50 tonnes of coal and ultimately died, and we did not take evidence from him; we took what was used in a coroner’s case. Five years later, I was working for Newcastle City Council, encouraging home careworkers who had worked themselves into an early grave. I was saying, “Look, it is really in your interests to leave work on ill-health retirement agreements.” They would not talk to personnel officers because they were frightened of that sort of authority figure, but as a local trade union representative I was able to convince them it was the right thing for them to do and for the authority to do. We saved having to give people compulsory redundancy and we were helping to manage the system. Under what is being proposed now, the likes of me will no longer be there. There will be some clerk filling forms in to send down to London for a clerk there, and there will be thousands of these things. This really has to be stopped. It is nonsense and it should be thrown out.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

My hon. Friend and I know, as does anybody who has been involved in these things, that for the past 50 or 60 years every Tory Government manifesto has had a clause attacking the trade unions. He referred to facility time, and the proposal shows how inexperienced Ministers are on industrial relations. Any major employer welcomes facility time as it saves them a lot of money in the end.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. If instead of talking to the TaxPayers Alliance to get information, the Government had spoken to any reasonable employer in this country or any trade union that deals day in, day out with this, they would have got a picture of the real story, not just some made-up attack on the trade union movement, which is what this is really all about.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Campaigns Chair

I realise that time is short, so I shall be brief. Welcome as it is that the Government have been forced into a series of embarrassing U-turns, my party, which does not receive funding from the trade union movement, does not regard the Bill as a sensible attempt to look at some of the issues relating to party funding. Clearly, that should be done in the round and fairly, including looking at trade union funding, and we would support such an approach. This always set out to be a cynical, politically motivated Bill that undermines the important role that trade unions play in the democratic process. Encouragingly, Members in the other place have acted in a measured and cross-party way. Rather than simply striking down rafts of the Bill, as many would have liked—we would have liked to see that for some parts of the Bill—they have suggested cross-party, sensible and measured amendments.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, Energy and Climate Change Committee

Is it not amazing that a party that tells us all that it is in favour of the free market has in this case resorted to very high-handed regulation?

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Campaigns Chair

It certainly presents itself as an extremely draconian Bill whose drafting involved no collaboration of any kind.

I think that, welcome though it is, the Government’s change of heart has not gone far enough. I echo the words of Tommy Sheppard: it is clear that the Government have realised that they cannot make enemies of the trade unions when they need the trade union movement in order to secure a “yes” vote—an “in” vote—in the EU referendum. I look forward to working with trade unionists, with the Government, and with members of all parties in seeking to achieve that.

Time is short. Let me end by saying that, given the Government’s welcome U-turn, we will not oppose the amendment. Nevertheless, the Government have simply failed to make the case that electronic voting is not a sensible, modern way forward, which exposes the fact this is really about trying to stop trade unions from reaching the threshold rather than sensibly reforming the system. Alongside others, we will continue to make the case for such reform.

I believe that the Government should think again about the attitude to trade unions that they have shown during this process, and should work together with parties.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

Let me begin by drawing the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and to my membership of the GMB and Unison.

I want to make just one brief point, which relates to my earlier intervention about the Welsh Government. The Minister is placing the UK Government on a collision course with the Welsh Government in respect of facility time. The case will end up in the Supreme Court at great cost to the public purse, and the UK Government will—according to their own legal advice—lose. So I ask the Minister please to reconsider his approach to this part of the Bill.

Question put, That amendment (a) to Lords amendment 2 be made.

The House divided:

Ayes 312, Noes 260.

Division number 256

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Aye

No

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendment (a) made to Lords amendment 2.

More than 90 minutes having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).

Amendment (b) made to Lords amendment 2.

Lords amendment 2, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 13