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Second Reading

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:43 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 10:43 pm, 11th January 2016

My Lords, this has been a wide-ranging debate. I was confident that your Lordships would take a keen and knowledgeable interest in the Bill, and that has been amply confirmed this evening.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Livermore, on his first speech in our House. He brings with him both notable experience of how government works and strong business experience. I agree with him about the power of business as a vehicle of social mobility and of unions’ role in training and development. I was pleased to hear the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo. I commend in particular her experience in the other place of helping children and families, which will be very important in this House. Finally, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Watts, and I look forward to his further input in the continuing debate on the Bill.

Given the impressive number of noble Lords who have spoken, I am not able to reply to them all, but fortunately there will be plenty of time for further debate in Committee, and of course, my door is always open. Indeed, we need to scrutinise the Bill together, as the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, said; we may want to make measured and sensible improvements. In that regard, I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Monks, with whom I worked in a prior life, for reminding us all to bring our experience and expertise to the Bill. I welcome that.

We also benefited from the vast experience of my noble friends Lord King and Lord Mawhinney, and the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, who were involved in different aspects of the history of trade unionism. On a different note of history, I am delighted that the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Lennie, took the opportunity to mention David Bowie, whose death was so sadly announced today. We all enjoyed the summary by the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, of the early use of videos in political campaigning.

To pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, I agree that the trade unions have a strong future as well as a distinguished history. I know this from my own experience in both the public and private sectors, which a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, were kind enough to mention. I should pay tribute to his experience in this area, as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, also reminded us of the role that trade unions play in society. My noble friend Lord Balfe revealed the little-known fact that 30% of union members vote Conservative.

Given some of the remarks made, including the suggestion that the legislation is vindictive or even dangerous, I need to be absolutely clear that this Bill is not an attack on trade unions or workers’ rights; nor is it an attempt to ban strikes, or to make it harder for people to join unions or for unions to go about their legitimate business. The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, questioned whether businesses support the reforms. When we introduced the Bill, the deputy director-general of the CBI said:

“We’re glad the Government has brought forward this Bill, as the CBI has long called for modernisation of our outdated industrial relations laws to better reflect today’s workforce and current workplace practices”.

We are seeking through this Bill to modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members. I agree with my noble friend Lord Dobbs, who gave the compelling example of the London Tube strikes. We need to address the balance between the rights of trade unions and the rights of the rest of us—the general public—in trying to get about our working lives. This is a strong point, and we must not forget it. These are moderate, necessary and welcome reforms.

Nor is there a lack of evidence. As many have said, things are better than they were in the 1960s and 1970s, but strikes today, triggered by a small minority, can cause a huge amount of disruption to everyone, as we have heard and as my noble friend Lord Callanan said. As my noble friend Lord Flight argued, the public are fed up with public sector strikes. Strikes in schools cause major disruption to the lives of many, especially working parents. As my noble friend Lord De Mauley said, the NUT strike in 2014 led to the full or partial closure of almost 1,500 schools, nurseries and colleges across England, on a ballot that was almost two years old, for which there was an alleged voting turnout of just 27%.

I was glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, touched on the place of women. However, I disagree with her suggestion, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, that women are disproportionately adversely affected by this Bill. Indeed, I would argue that they can often be more affected by strikes and will therefore potentially benefit most from this Bill. For example, working mothers may have to give up a day’s work or try to find alternative care for their children. This makes their busy lives even harder. The British Chambers of Commerce has estimated that the 2008 teachers’ strike alone cost businesses some £68 million in lost working hours.

Those figures are regrettable and dispiriting, especially because, as my noble friend Lord Leigh said, the vast majority of days lost to strikes are in the public sector. Any responsible Government would try to do something to lessen the incidence of such events. However, I am not convinced of the case he made for extending the 40% balloting requirement to additional sectors.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, for bringing the Oxford University research to the House’s attention. People affected by Tube strikes might not just face delays in travelling or need to find new routes; they may be forced to miss out on a day of work or miss important appointments. Our proposals consider this wider context.

The noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord Collins, and other noble Lords raised the important issue of productivity. I was sorry to miss some of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Young. The Government’s productivity plan outlines an ambitious vision for where we want to be by 2020 and the pro-productivity agenda that we need to deliver that. This is not in the Bill of course but we are taking action, and I agree with the noble Lord about the vital importance of skills.

In response to my noble friend Lord Borwick, who spoke about the junior doctors, none of the changes in the Bill is about stopping strikes. The new thresholds are intended to ensure that strikes can happen only as a result of a clear, positive decision by those entitled to vote. The recent BMA ballot achieved that, although it is very disappointing that the doctors decided to strike rather than return to the negotiating table.

We have heard much today from all sides of the House about electronic balloting. We have been very clear that we have no objection in principle to electronic balloting, but it is imperative that everyone—unions, businesses and the public—has complete confidence in the ballot process. A decision on strike action has much wider implications for the public than some other ballots; it is not just a workplace matter. That is why a postal ballot is required for industrial action, union election and political fund ballots. There are significant challenges for e-balloting, including potential hacking, mentioned by my noble friend Lord King, vote selling and voter intimidation, as recognised by the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy in 2015. I am sure that we will return to this issue in Committee.

I turn to the points made on human rights. I was delighted to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and was grateful for the work that we did together on the Enterprise Bill. This Government recognise that the freedom of assembly guaranteed by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights affords the right to join trade unions and the right to take industrial action. However, it is well established under the convention that it is perfectly legitimate to legislate in ways that may place limits on strike action and other trade union activities where those limits are justified and proportionate.

We are also comfortable with the measures on picketing, which are designed to make it clear to the police and the employer both where a picket is taking place and whom the police or an employer should contact. These are reasonable steps to ensure that pickets pass off peacefully.

I would not have signed the statement on human rights on the face of the Bill if I had not been satisfied that the provisions were justified, proportionate and compatible with our international obligations—in particular, obligations under the UN and ILO treaties, as well as obligations under the European Social Charter. However, in view of the points raised, I will write to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, responding to the points that she made.

Our door is always open on the reform of party funding but this Bill is not about party funding; it is about ensuring that the relationship between trade union members and trade unions is as transparent as possible. The pledge to legislate to ensure a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions can be found at paragraph 19 of the Conservative Party manifesto.