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Second Reading

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:12 pm on 11th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Stoneham of Droxford Lord Stoneham of Droxford Liberal Democrat 10:12 pm, 11th January 2016

My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo, and the noble Lords, Lord Livermore and

Lord Watts, on their maiden speeches. The hour is late, most of the arguments have been heard and we are largely talking to ourselves so, after a few general observations, I will confine myself to three themes in the Bill. Like my noble friend Lady Burt, I am deeply depressed by this piece of legislation. After five years of coalition, we are back to partisan politics and, as many speakers have said, it is distracting from the real issue of how we should build on the success of the economy, concentrating particularly on raising productivity, exports and public sector reform.

The Government should be taking the high road. They should be delivering what they say they believe in: one nation. They should be building on the partnerships between management and unions that have transformed our motor industry in the past 20 years. Indeed, in the public sector they should be building on the success the previous Government achieved with the public sector unions in implementing, remarkably, the Hutton public sector pension reforms. Instead, they seem to be taking the low road, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, in his excellent speech, of partisanship and reacting disproportionately to the issues we should be seeking to resolve.

My noble friend Lord Rennard reminded us that, frankly, there are lots of issues here that were fought over in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s by respective Conservative and Labour Governments. With respect to the noble Lords, Lord King, Lord Mawhinney and Lord Dobbs, we do not have to refight the battles of In Place of Strife, the miners’ strike or the winter of discontent. Reforms were introduced to improve democracy in the unions and ballots before strikes. Red Robbo, Fleet Street, British Leyland and the mining industry, sadly, no longer exist. A basis of consent was established nearly 20 years ago on these measures when the Labour Government did not go back to change this legislation. It is in disturbing this consensus that the Bill seems now to be taking a backward step.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, I have had 30 years of dealing with unions, and being part of a union, in pretty difficult sectors—coal, rail and printing—and I have not lost my faith in what they seek to do. I accept that they are not perfect. At times they can be frustrating but they are important stakeholders in our society and our workplaces, and I would rather deal any day with a progressive, strong union leadership than weakened, insecure and incompetent leadership. Frankly, the same goes for management, too. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, pointed out, management often gets the unions that it deserves. It does not surprise me that it has taken foreign ownership and management to transform the motor industry and get it out of its class interests.

There has been some dispute in this debate over a view that was expressed by some, and indeed by Nick Boles when we met him as the Minister responsible for this legislation in the Commons. When we saw him, he said that people will ask in years to come what all the fuss was about. I do not accept that this is as transformational as the legislation that we saw in the 1980s, as some may argue, but it will not modernise the unions. It will perpetuate the unions’ decline when they are already pretty weak. It will also risk making unions more insecure, as their leadership will be less good, and pushing them into their own silos. That will cause the country more problems.

Let us take three issues: the threshold for strike ballots, union facilities and political funding. First, on the strike ballot threshold, I understand—and we in this group understand—that public sector strikes which inconvenience the public are unpopular, and a 50% turnout might well be reasonable. But I am more sceptical about the more complicated thresholds, which could simply fan the flames of discontent rather than resolve them. From the Back Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, is already questioning the net that will cover these issues so this is just the start of what the Government are about. If independent scrutineers are involved, as indeed they are, we should certainly experiment with other avenues of voting. Electronic voting and workplace ballots could be used. Indeed, electronic voting will actually help unions to improve their communications because they will have to get the email addresses of their members, and encourage them to have email addresses.

Disputes have to be resolved through a bargaining relationship; if that is not understood, we will be led to unintended consequences. If you have thresholds, the unions will work to achieve those thresholds, so strikers could become more intransigent. Just take the case of the junior doctors: 76% have voted and 99% are in favour, so that ticks all the boxes as far as the legislation is concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Borwick, described it as intransigence by the BMA when it is trying to express a democratic view, but how do you resolve the dispute? There will have to be either a government climbdown or a prolonged dispute, because the dispute will have been made more intransigent. That is the danger.

What are we left with? We have the Minister resorting to the old adage of the enemy within. He is quoted in the Guardian today as saying:

“Of course it’s a concern if some elements within the BMA are seeing this as a political opportunity to bash a Tory government that they hate”.

I do not really believe that that is representative of the BMA. This is not the politics of reason or likely to resolve the dispute and, at the end of the day, two sides have to resolve a dispute.

We could cover a whole series of issues under trade union facilities. The check-off is clearly designed to weaken unions and is a distraction when we should be getting unions to co-operate on public sector reform. Similarly, with facilities, there is a more important issue: the Government talk on one hand about devolution to local authorities, to the regions and to the nations, but at the same time wish to retain their powers of centralisation. It is okay for employers to be able to challenge the check-off if they want to, but legislation will undermine local decision-making. People should be allowed to make those decisions locally. We should be reminded in this House that there has been a huge decline in workplace representation. Local representatives, in my view, are vital in many organisations to oil wheels, resolve grievances and channel employees’ emotions. The last thing you want in industry is high turnover and inexperienced representatives. They are the bugbear of good employers.

We have had serious discussions on political funding, and my noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard have covered the issues very well. The issue of opting out of or opting in to political funding through trade union funds has been around for over 100 years. It is not a new issue. It keeps coming back, and if the Conservatives change this, then Labour will be back with it. More importantly, all political parties have their views on this—we would like the trade unions to give some money to us and I expect the Conservatives would as well—but we are not going to do this in a one-sided way. This is a completely one-sided playing field. As has been said in the debate, without covering the whole issue of public funding, it is just giving more political power to the Conservatives. It is completely unfair and this House needs to be very cautious in looking at this legislation and to consider opposing these moves.

Returning to my original thoughts, I am saddened by the destruction in this legislation. We will seek to challenge and amend it. The trade unions may not be perfect, but they are often better than the alternative. We defend their right to exist, as they are very important to our national life. We may not always favour them, but we accept they have an important political role in our society and in the workplace. All organisations and societies benefit from the grit in the oyster and from having somebody to challenge them, and the unions do that where they exist. It is not easy, but they provide an important challenge. There is a danger, if you diminish and weaken them, that you will lose their leadership.

If you want trade union reform, it should be of a type that seeks to modernise the unions and strengthen them. We need to look at what makes them more representative, assists them in making better use of their limited resources and helps them to develop their services in mutual insurance, pensions and legal advice, which can help their members. Above all, we oppose the political stunts of the political funding measures, which go against the whole tradition of cross-party agreement in this debate.