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Second Reading

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 11th January 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 3:08 pm, 11th January 2016

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for raising this issue, which I was intending to cover today. To assist the House, I am happy to clarify that the Government have already published consultation impact assessments alongside the public consultations that support our package of reforms, as well as an equality impact assessment. As foreshadowed when I met noble Lords before Christmas, we will publish a further impact assessment on the Bill before Committee.

This is an important Bill, dealing with a very important subject. Trade unions have a long and distinguished history. They first came into being when many workers led a precarious existence and incapacity in a family’s main breadwinner could spell tragedy. They helped bring about higher wages and safer workplaces, and have many more worthy accomplishments to their credit. Everything I say today should be seen against this background.

In an earlier life, I worked at a company that had excellent relations with its main trade union, which achieved many benefits for its members in the company. However, every great social institution requires occasional modernisation if it is to remain relevant and responsive. I know how keen on modernisation noble Lords opposite are. Every institution can benefit from greater transparency, better accountability and clearer regulation.

The Bill seeks to modernise trade unions—not to undermine their place in society, but to strengthen it by making sure that they are accountable and transparent and use their powers responsibly. It is not fair that a strike in the education sector in 2014 organised by the National Union of Teachers was held on the support of just 22% of its members. Similarly, in 2014 a strike among NHS workers was called by Unite on the basis of the support of just 12% of members.

The consequences of strike action can be widespread and severe for many. I think especially of those having to juggle childcare whenever schoolteachers or Tube drivers take industrial action. As a parent and, indeed, now a grandparent, I know just how difficult such disruption can be. and remember that in Britain today we have the highest level of women’s participation in the workforce ever.

Some people have described the Bill as an attack on trade unions, on workers’ rights, on their ability to strike, and even on human rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bill is about bringing more democracy and transparency to industrial relations. It seeks to achieve a better and fairer balance between the rights of workers and the needs of people who rely on important public services.

Taking democracy first, the key purpose of the Bill is to ensure that strikes take place only where there is a genuine democratic and recent mandate. The Bill therefore provides that all strike ballots will require at least a 50% turnout before industrial action can commence. In addition, in important public services we will require at least 40% of members eligible to support a yes vote. We need to find a better balance to ensure that people who rely on these services do not find their lives disrupted at short notice by strikes that have the support of only a small proportion of union members. The Government’s reforms will restore public confidence that, where industrial action takes place, it always has the strong support of union members.

The Bill also requires unions to provide their members with a more detailed explanation of what issues are in dispute and what form of industrial action is planned on the ballot paper. This will allow all members to vote meaningfully and with confidence. Once a ballot has been won under our proposals, it would be valid for four months. This measure means that a strike can be called only on a recent decision by union members, not on a ballot that happened years before. The National Union of Teachers called a strike in July 2014 on a mandate from June 2011. We cannot go on in this way.

Moving on to transparency, the Bill will allow individual union members to make an active choice whether to contribute to a union’s political activities. Paying into the fund automatically will no longer be the default position. Having taken the decision, we want members to consider whether they want to continue to support the political campaigning of their union. That is why the Bill requires that union members will have to refresh the decision every five years. There is no reason why this new transparency should reduce the appetite for individual members to contribute to a union’s political fund. Indeed, we hope that it will increase the democratic debate within unions about the appropriate use of such funds.

Facility time is another area where we want to increase transparency. Most taxpayers are surprised to hear that some public sector workers are paid by the state to do a specific job, but spend a significant proportion of their time—indeed, in some cases, all their time—working on union matters. This, however, does not mean that the duties carried out by union representatives are not valuable. The measure will aid a more effective use of taxpayers’ money, while allowing public sector employers to focus on those areas that are vital to maintaining good industrial relations. It allows Ministers to require employers to publish information on the use of facility time in their own organisation. In the Civil Service, we have already introduced such a transparency requirement. Before these 2012 reforms to facility time, the cost to the taxpayer was around £36 million annually; now it has reduced to £9.45 million a year. Although we have taken a reserve power to set a limit on facility time, we will use that only if facility time is disproportionately high.

I now turn to measures to ensure a modern framework for union activities. We are grateful for the democratic debate that has taken place during the passage of the Bill through Parliament so far. We have listened, which has allowed us to improve the Bill. For example, our manifesto committed us to tackling the intimidation of non-striking workers. We held a wide-ranging public consultation and published our response in November. Much concern was raised during that consultation over what we may and might not do, most of which was unfounded. For example, we were never going to approve the text of individual tweets. Following the consultation, we are not pursuing a new offence of intimidation on the picket line. However, the consultation has allowed us to be clear that we need to update the 1992 code of practice on picketing to ensure that it addresses the use of social media. The Bill also makes an obligation of the appointment of a picket supervisor. This requirement is already in the code of picketing, which has been followed without difficulty on many occasions by many unions.

We believe that better transparency and democratic accountability will be further enhanced by a stronger and more direct relationship between unions and their members. That is why we are ending the practice of check-off in the public sector. Nowadays, in a world of direct debits and easy online payments, it feels unnecessary. Unions need to have a more direct relationship with their members.

We are also reforming the role of the Certification Officer to allow proper, robust and proportionate regulation. A modern regulator should not be a burden on the taxpayer. That is why we are asking trade unions and employer associations to pay for their regulator via a levy. This is not an unusual approach. The Bill equips the Certification Officer with appropriate new powers for a modern regulator of trade unions and employer associations. We are widening the Certification Officer’s powers of investigation in relation to suspected breaches of statutory requirements. These are neither unusual nor draconian. For example, the CO will be able to request the production of documents where there is good reason to do so. He or she will be able to consider concerns from third parties in deciding whether to investigate potential breaches. He or she will also have the ability to impose financial penalties for those who do not apply the statutory requirements. I shall say more about the exact levels of financial penalties at a later stage of the Bill.

I recognise that many noble Lords feel passionately about unions and industrial relations and are wary of any attempts to change the laws relating to them. I hope they will accept that these are sensible, proportionate measures that will bring industrial life into the 21st century.