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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 13th January 2014.

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Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 7:30 pm, 13th January 2014

My Lords, the reasoning behind this is simply to look at the bigger picture in relation to unions. The noble Lord, Lord Lea, needs to be reminded that unions with 10,000 members or fewer will be self-certificating. We are looking at those unions who have large membership lists. Many colleagues of the noble Lord—certainly in Committee—acknowledged that it is a challenge to keep membership lists up to date. This is why—in a very light touch way—we are bringing in an assurer so that we can be sure that the lists are up to date, so far as is reasonably practicable.

I believe that the membership audit certificate will be credible for larger unions only if it is independent, and this is because larger unions often represent workers across a range of different job types and employers. They have complicated branch structures—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Lea, would agree with that. They often have different IT systems and there may be greater time delays for updating information. A union official or rep would not, therefore, have the same credibility as an independent expert in assuring that the systems used across the entire union are fit for purpose. This is the essence of what we are aiming to do. That may also be helpful in response to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty.

Clause 37 requires trade unions with more than 10,000 members to appoint a qualified, independent person, called an assurer, who has a duty to provide an annual membership audit certificate to the union. The membership audit certificate must state whether, in the opinion of the assurer, the union’s system—and please note this word “system”—for compiling and maintaining the register is satisfactory to comply with the duties in Section 24. This is analogous with the regime in place for financial reporting, where all unions are required to appoint an independent auditor to approve their accounts. An assurer has the right to access the membership register and other relevant documents at all reasonable times, and to require information and explanations from the union. This is necessary for the assurers to be able to meet their duties and carry out their functions. However, as I mentioned in a previous debate, they will be subject to the obligations of the Data Protection Act when handling union membership data.

The assurer may request access only to documents which may be relevant to the union’s duties in Section 24. At the outset, when the assurer is appointed, the union and the assurer could agree terms as to the relevant documents to which the assurer should have access. If, after making inquiries, the assurer’s opinion is that the union’s system for maintaining the register is not satisfactory, or the assurer is unable to obtain the information necessary to provide the certificate, they must state this on the certificate and give reasons for doing so. If the certificate is not satisfactory, the assurer is required to send it to the certification officer as soon as is reasonably practicable but after submitting it to the union. Again, as part of the contractual arrangements, it would be possible for the union and the assurer to agree that the assurer must alert the union of any possible issues before the certificate is finalised.

Clause 37 also provides an order-making power for the Secretary of State to set out who is qualified to be an assurer. A person is not qualified if their independence is questionable, or if the union believes that they would not carry out their duties competently. An officer or employee of a union, or their partners or employers, may not perform the role of assurer for that union. In order to carry out their duties, the assurer is likely to want to understand how records are compiled and maintained. This could include looking at whether the union has mechanisms in place to ensure that it collects and records data accurately from new members, reminds members to keep their addresses up to date, and updates the register promptly once changes are notified. Unions will set out in their individual rules the provisions for appointing and removing an assurer, although certain provisions will have effect, notwithstanding this flexibility. The union retains ultimate control, however, because it can always remove an assurer from office by passing a resolution. As I have explained, Clause 37 is crucial to the credibility and effectiveness of the reporting regime introduced by the Bill in order to demonstrate the unions’ compliance with their existing duty to maintain an up-to-date register of members.

I now turn to Amendment 30. This would alter Clause 38 to make the certification officer’s powers to require the production of documents contingent on receiving a formal and qualifying complaint. As drafted, the amendment is difficult to follow, as there is no explanation of what would constitute such a complaint. The intended change seeks to undermine the key policy objective of Part 3 of the Bill, which is to give union members, employers and the public greater assurance that unions are complying with their existing duties to keep an up-to-date register of their members’ names and addresses. The amendment would make it more difficult for the certification officer to exercise the investigatory powers introduced by the Bill.

The principle underlying the existing duties has not been questioned. However, evidence from BIS’s consultation and from debate in this House and in the other place has indicated that unions face difficulties in keeping their records updated and that there is not always confidence in their compliance with the duties. As the noble Lord, Lord Monks, acknowledged in Committee, union membership records are not perfect. The noble Lord has a wealth of experience in this field, which I recognise and as has been demonstrated by his contributions to these debates. As he explained to the House, unions collect subscriptions in a variety of methods. He said:

“The record keeping could sometimes slip”.

Moreover, he said that high turnover in some sectors means that,

“a third of the members of USDAW, the main retail union, have to be replaced each year just for membership numbers to stand still”.—[ Hansard, 11/11/13; col. 529.]

Current statute does not provide—