Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill — Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:24 pm on 13th January 2014.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 7:24 pm, 13th January 2014

My Lords, Amendment 29 would deal with the problem that was alluded to in the previous debate. A number of my noble friends referred to the new office of assurer and queried why we needed it, what exactly the role of the officeholder would be and suggested that it was an additional level of red tape and bureaucracy for trade union administration. In replying to the previous debate, the Minister did not address this point but rather sought to reassure the House in relation to confidentiality. However, in seeking to leave out Clause 37, my amendment suggests that there is no point whatever in inventing this new role. The oversight of trade union administration is clearly in the hands of the certification officer, and has been so for many years.

The Government may feel that the certification officer needs new powers—they are contained in the Bill to a limited extent—or that he needs new resources to carry out his job, but the relevant apparatus for doing that is already in place. They have invented a new officer without defining that officer’s qualifications, which will be defined in technical regulations at a later stage. The Minister referred to a list from which trade unions could choose but, presumably, the list is drawn up by the Government. The House does not have before it the qualifications that are required for someone to be on the list, the details of how you get on to it or what professional standards the assurer should meet.

As my noble friend Lord Lea asked, why is no other body in society having an assurer imposed upon it? No reason has been given for that by the Minister so far; perhaps he will do so when he replies to this debate. The only reason given in the impact assessment for not moving entirely down this road is because, as he says, assurers are an important part of society and the public and union members need to be assured that their membership records are in order. As far as the rest of society is concerned—I include in that employers and the Government—clearly the membership records of a union are most important at times of possible industrial strife. The list of members taking part in a ballot on a potential industrial dispute must accord with the union membership covered by the issue under dispute. There are reams of case law in that area, so the assurer has not been invented in order to monitor strike ballots more rigorously as that issue is already covered.

The full union membership list, excluding members’ personal details, is an important document when union elections are held. We need to ensure that internal elections are proper and fair, that members who are given a vote in those elections have the right to vote in them and that everybody who falls into that category has a vote. However, that issue is also covered in existing legislation and there are already complaint mechanisms and potentially draconian sanctions for a union which breaches those rules. Therefore, I see no reason to invent another officer.

Unions, through their own rules and through legislation more generally, are already required to audit their financial records. A significant part of those financial records comprises the receipt of membership dues and the recording of those receipts. The auditor of a trade union already has to do that. The oversight of that process is already there with the certification officer, who has substantial powers to intervene. Where in this does the assurer rest? He is not an auditor, a lawyer or an officer of the certification office. No standards of professional attainment exist for such a creature. In the previous debate, the Minister failed to reply to my noble friends Lord Lea and Lord Morris of Handsworth as to why such a person was necessary.

Amendment 29 deletes the whole reference to the assurer. There would have to be other consequential amendments but the simplest and cleanest way to deal with it is to delete the whole of Clause 37. The other toughening up of the requirements on unions to keep a membership list is there, and the powers of the certification officer would remain. However, the role of this specious, unnecessary and, to use a House of Lords’ term, otiose officer is not spelt out in anything that the Minister has yet said or in any of the documentation that we have received. I therefore think that it would be more sensible for the Government, instead of engaging in the creation of more layers of red tape in this area, just to drop the idea of this new level of bureaucracy and to let the existing requirements and the existing regulator perform their jobs—if necessary, to tighter standards than they previously consider that they have done. To do so probably would require the certification officer to have more resources, which I am sure the Government have in mind, but it would be cheaper to give those resources to the certification officer than to invent a whole new and unnecessary profession. I therefore hope that the Government could either give us more cogent reasons than they have so far given as to why the assurer has been invented or that they will take the issue away and look at it again.

My other amendment in this group basically deals with the powers of the certification officer and when they require documentation from the union over and above that which is supplied to the certification officer in the normal course of events. My amendment refers to “if” the certification officer considers it necessary after receipt of a complaint. Otherwise, it is a very open-ended power to require a lot of very delicate documentation. The trigger for requiring that additional documentation needs to be the receipt of a valid complaint. That would amend the following clause accordingly.

My main point in these amendments is: why on earth do we need this new officer, if officer is the word, this new profession, if profession is the word, this new bureaucratic measure—I was trying to think of another word—to be imposed within the trade union structure but not in any other part of civic or economic society? I beg to move.