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Second Reading

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:23 pm on 11th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour 9:23 pm, 11th January 2016

My Lords, as I think has been said by almost every speaker from this side, this is a mean, vindictive Bill that has nothing to do with improving the basic industrial problems of this country. What are those problems? We have rehearsed them during the course of the day. They are low productivity, skills shortages and lack of flexibility in working relationships. But what are we doing? We are tackling this as if the problem is strikes. I will not go through the figures from the Office for National Statistics yet again, but it is quite clear that if you look at the 30-year run of month-to-month statistics, we are going through the longest sustained period since 1931—with the exception of that one peak when we had the winter of discontent—of low strike rates in this country. So we have to consider what we are really trying to achieve here.

I perked up a little when I heard the Minister say in her introduction—I wrote her words down, so that I remembered the tense—that trade unions have a long and distinguished history. I want to tell the Minister, that, yes, they have a long and distinguished history, but they have an extremely important present, and many Members on this side of the Chamber and many people in the country will make sure that they have an important role for the future. They are not just something from the past whose activities we are seeking ways to wind up.

Great emphasis is placed in the Bill on the ballot to call a strike. I am not quite sure where people are going to vote on this ballot paper, because the rules on what has to be included for guidance on the ballot paper are very confusing. The ballot paper is not just going to ask whether you want to go on strike or not; it will have to say whether it is going to be a strike or,

“industrial action short of a strike”— a very interesting phrase that appears in Clause 4, to which I shall return shortly. Reasons also have to be given, along with a lot of other information. In doing that, the trade union will be setting out a very combative position in order to persuade its members.

But if you have to have a ballot to call a strike, has anybody given any thought to how you end it? I have some experience of working with trade unions, and I can imagine trade union executives, when called upon to get their members back to work, saying, “Well, no—we weren’t trusted to make the decisions in the negotiations at the beginning that caused the strike. I don’t think we can accept the responsibility for making the decision to call it off”. Strikes have to have a beginning and an end, and if we insist on complex balloting arrangements for the beginning of a strike, we have to have very clear arrangements for its conclusion.

As I said, Clause 4 refers to,

“industrial action short of a strike”.

We have heard precious little about that today, and nothing about it from the Government. But industrial action short of a strike is in many cases far more damaging than a clear-cut strike which, when it has had its day or two days, is finished and everything is back in position. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, was much concerned with problems on the railways. Let us imagine that a decision is taken by railway workers to take industrial action short of a strike. That means that the first day of the strike will be a much less inconvenient day, but at the end of the first day the rolling stock will be scattered all around the network because people have not worked overtime to take the trains back to the depot, and there will be no staff there to man the trains, so you will have a much more chaotic situation. The Bill does not address that situation at all.

Bearing in mind the time, I shall just mention the very important contribution to the debate made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. It has not been much referred to. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has made the very succinct declaration that she has,

“made the following statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act”.

However, her view did not persuade me quite as much as some of the reservations expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and the statement made by Lorna McGregor, a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Lorna McGregor has argued fairly cogently that the Trade Union Bill will impose “potentially unlawful restrictions” on the right to strike. There is a very serious question there that the Minister has to address.

This is not just a question of playing publicly with your virility symbols, saying in effect, “We’re going to be tough on the workers”; there will be very real consequences from each decision that the Government are proposing to make. I suggest that it might be in the best interests of the Government to show a little humility, to follow some of the arguments made by people on both sides of the House but particularly on this side—people who have much greater experience of industrial relations than the very small number who have participated from the other side—to learn from that experience and to change the Bill while there is still time. The alternative to changing the Bill will be a catastrophic imposition on industrial relations which will be to the detriment of the country and certainly to the detriment of its economic performance.