Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Second Reading

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:48 pm on 11th January 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Deputy Speaker (Lords) 9:48 pm, 11th January 2016

My Lords, I will concentrate my remarks on the effect of this Bill on women. Although we have touched on the subject in some speeches, no one has talked about the overall consequences that this will have on the part-time, low-paid workers referred to earlier by my noble friend Lord Sawyer. They are women who have been helped by being members of a union: improving family-friendly policies, raising standards and improving the quality of service. Women make up the majority of trade union membership and have benefited greatly from collective bargaining on pay, terms and conditions such as occupational maternity pay schemes, and from the newer forms of trade union representation such as union learning reps and equality reps. The report published by BIS in December 2014 showed that whether it was flexible working, enhanced maternity pay, training women returning to work after maternity leave, or health and safety at work, women benefit overwhelmingly from being in a unionised workforce.

Unions also play an important part in attempts to close the pay gap, which the Government talk a lot about but so far do not seem to achieve. Good employers share information with trade union representatives for the purpose of bargaining, which means that there is greater gender balance and disclosure of pay in those workforces. The ILO found that the gender pay gap is lowest in countries where collective bargaining coverage is high and companies are bound to a collective agreement. Therefore, promoting collective bargaining, rather than reducing trade union rights as this Bill seeks to do, is likely to lead to narrower gender pay differences in the workplace.

Unions have a crucial role in taking equal pay claims on behalf of women members. That is now even more crucial since the introduction of employment tribunal fees which present a barrier to many women seeking access to justice. This Bill, designed as it is to reduce the role of trade unions, could lead to a serious imbalance of power which could further lead to a decline in service delivery and have a negative impact on working conditions for women. Because the majority of women are in the important classifications under the Bill, they are also likely to be disproportionately affected by the introduction of the 40% threshold and the collection of the levy by the lack of introduction of electronic balloting. Over the years, the achievements for women have been pronounced in many ways. They have had the ability to fight for equal pay and fair treatment, and against discrimination. These are disadvantages on which women have long campaigned.

I want to do a little history too. One can go back to 1910 and the action of 800 women chain-makers at Cradley Heath. They were paid wages of five shillings for a 54-hour week of hard labour. They went on strike when their employers refused to implement a new minimum wage for chain-makers of 11 shillings and three old pence. However, those women won and they were the first in history to achieve a minimum wage. In 1918, the first equal pay strike was successfully won by women workers on London buses and trains. Later, the sewing machinists at the Ford plant in Dagenham took strike action for regrading to have parity with men, but only to the C grade. After three weeks, they settled for 92% of the C-grade rate and were responsible for Barbara Castle’s Equal Pay Act.

In 1995, women cleaners at Hillingdon Hospital went on strike for changes to their terms and conditions. They refused to sign the new employment contract and were sacked. With the help of their unions, they appealed to the employment tribunal. They were successful and were awarded the maximum compensation, which is an example of how the trade unions helped the women. My final example relates to the midwives who recently went on strike for the first time in the 133-year history of the Royal College of Midwives. They have expressed concern that this Bill will make it more difficult, and make women more fearful, to take legal action in the future. That is a disgraceful state of affairs. None of those women goes into this situation lightly. Earlier, the Minister referred to childcare. Yes, those women were prepared to make those sacrifice in order to achieve the rights that they felt they should have.

It is outrageous of the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, to justify this Bill as a guard against militants. None of those women was a militant. They were ordinary women fighting for their legitimate rights and women should be allowed to continue to do that. This Bill could prove to be a real restraint on gender equality. As my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon said, we await the impact assessment statement. The delay may be because of a fear of what consequences it might expose. For instance, within the NHS, it could have a serious consequence for productivity and staff morale, therefore exposing a threat to patient care. Further evidence shows that turnover in organisations where there are no union reps is three times higher than those with union reps, which equates to an annual saving for the NHS of about £100 million. The Bill will do nothing to improve industrial relations in the NHS, and, as has been said, will only harden the position. This applies to many other public industries.

However, we heard of the equality analysis that has taken place, which says that the Bill will benefit the whole country, which will be less inconvenienced by strike action, and, as it is not adverse to anyone, it therefore will not have an adverse effect on women. What a piece of double-speak. Obviously no account was taken of the Ipsos MORI poll, which showed that eight out of 10 people believe that trade unions are essential to protect workplace rights—I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Flight, is not in his place, since he talked about the majority of people being in favour of the Bill and its consequences.

The Bill clearly shows that the Government have a purpose: to weaken the trade unions at any costs and to reduce the rights of the 6.5 million British people who belong to unions. It has nothing to do with modernisation. It is an assault on those hard-working women and men who the Government purport to support. It is a disgraceful and pernicious piece of legislation.