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My Lords, the public can be forgiven for thinking that this Bill is only about strike action. That is what public commentary has focused on. But in reality, as today’s debate has demonstrated, the proposals go much wider. The Bill does not stop at setting high thresholds for strike ballots by train drivers, teachers or hospital workers; it launches a much broader attack on the ability of trade unions to organise and politically engage, subjects them to extended scrutiny from the Certification Officer and expands Ministers’ powers, with significant and unseen secondary legislation still to follow—all of which disturbingly upsets the balance of influence in our treasured pluralist democracy. Amnesty, Liberty and the Equality and Human Rights Commission—the hat-trick—have all expressed their deep concerns.
In contrast to the 1980s, industrial relations today are in a benign state. Strike days are a tiny fraction of the 27 million days in 1984. No evidence is provided for why such extensive provisions are needed today and no assessment of their impact is yet published, yet the Bill shifts the balance of power against workers in the labour market and the balance of political influence against trade unions and the Labour Party.
Currently, the Certification Officer has the power to act on a complaint from a trade union member. The Bill transforms it from an adjudicator on disputes between unions and their members into an enforcement agency with wide-ranging powers—even if a member has not made a complaint—to initiate investigations, require the production of documents and impose substantial fines. It gives the state extensive access to members’ details and privileged correspondence. As the Minister for Skills confirmed, third parties will be able to raise concerns. The failure to act on them could well expose the Certification Officer to judicial review. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission comments, the power to instigate complaints, as well as investigate them and adjudicate on them, compromises the impartiality of the Certification Officer and therefore raises substantive concerns about compliance with Article 6.
As my noble friend Lord Hain observed, excessive state interference with independent trade unions has normally been strongly opposed by all good democrats. The Bill gives Ministers significant reserved powers to amend primary legislation relating to facility time for union representatives in public authorities. The Equality and Human Rights Commission believes that these open-ended powers could be used to introduce disproportionate interference with freedom of association. They are, indeed, open-ended. As the Delegated Powers Committee observed, the Government’s power to require information, or impose a limit on facilities, extends to a person who is not a public authority but who has functions of a public nature because they receive funding in part from public funds. This could include a care home with local authority-funded residents; a charity providing services; indeed, a long list of employers who receive public funds.
The Bill introduces stricter rules for a lawful ballot and lawful industrial action, but meeting those higher standards of legitimacy will still not be enough for a legitimate strike. The Government are intent on removing the restrictions on agency workers being employed to cover striking workers. In effect, responsibility will be transferred from the principal employer to the employment agency, through service-level agreements, to resolve a lawful dispute by strike breaking. Agency workers will have to strike-break to keep their jobs with the employment agency, because the agency’s service contract will require them to supply labour during a strike, and the agencies know that.
Tony Blair once said that British labour law is,
“the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world”.
It is about to get even more so; yet individual protections are also being weakened. The big increase in fees saw employment tribunal claims plummet by nearly 70% in the year following their introduction—way beyond deterring unmeritorious cases.
The Government claim that they are the workers’ party because they increased the minimum wage. I have spoken in favour of such an increase from these Benches. However, as the Centre for Policy Studies argued, it was driven as much by the need to address low levels of UK productivity and stop companies—including many large employers—taking advantage of in-work benefits to subsidise their pay bills as it was by a caring attitude for the low paid. The £4 billion rise in pay which the increase will generate is no substitute for the £12 billion cut in benefits.
The proposals on political funds do not represent a regulatory regime that is fair to all political parties. They are a partisan measure, intended to reduce unions’ political engagement and the funding of the Labour Party. The change from “opt out” to “opt in” does not come from measured cross-party consideration. The established precedent that changes to party funding happen only by consensus has simply been torn up.
Figures show that from 2009 to 2015, excluding donations directly paid to candidates, the Conservative Party received £39,970,822 and the Labour Party £7,437,087 in company donations. They confirm what we all know: Labour receives significant funding from trade unions, the Conservatives from business. But there is no proposal, for example, for businesses to seek the specific approval of individual shareholders for the donations that they make. Employers use opt-out to put employees in salary sacrifice schemes and to change terms and working practices, and the state uses opt-out to get workers to save for retirement. But it is now unilaterally unacceptable for unions to use it, even with the bedrock protection that members cannot be auto-enrolled into union membership. The certification officer will now have new powers to require unions to report in considerable detail on how public funds have been spent.
The Government claim that the rules are even-handed because they apply to employers’ associations. That is disingenuous. None of the 94 employers’ associations on the certification list has a political fund. Companies make political donations individually or via other channels. Everyone with a modicum of understanding knows that these rules will impact only trade unions.