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My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, who is not in his place, I spent a large proportion of my professional life acting for trade unions and their members—and the firm of which I am an unpaid consultant continues to do so—pursuing claims for personal injuries and appearing before employment and medical appeal tribunals. I recall lecturing to Workers’ Educational Association schools and individual union gatherings on the ground-breaking Redundancy Payments Act introduced by the Labour Government in the 1960s. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is now in his place.
Just a few months ago, I came across another example of my interest in trade unions while casually browsing through the verbatim records of Newcastle City Council meetings, of all things. In March 1975, it fell to me to reply to a debate initiated by Conservative councillors—some 21 years before they became an extinct species in the City—in which strong criticism was levied at the Community Development Project, created by the Heath Government, for having the temerity to display posters and materials about trade unions on its premises. By sheer chance, I was able to quote the following passage, which had appeared in the press the previous weekend. It stated that,
“for over 100 years, ever since Disraeli’s day, since before the Labour Party ever existed, it has been the belief of the Conservative Party that the law should not only permit, but that it should assist, the trades unions to carry out their legitimate function of protecting their members”.
They were the words of a Conservative politician, one Margaret Thatcher, which she proclaimed within weeks of becoming her party’s leader. What better test could be applied to the provisions of this Bill than to see whether, and to what extent, it conforms to that ringing declaration?
Against a background in which the number of days lost through industrial action has long been much reduced, the Government have chosen to interfere with the working and finances of trade unions and, indeed, in some respects, of their employers in ways not contemplated—or if contemplated, at least not implemented—in the most troubled years of the 1980s. Moreover they have spatchcocked into this Bill a measure deliberately designed to damage the finances of the Labour Party, going well beyond the restrictions imposed by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, even though the so-called political levy amounts to around 16p per head per week in the case of Unite, not all of which goes to the Labour Party but is spent on campaigns on contemporary issues. Moreover, of course, not all unions are affiliated to Labour.
This approach is not confined to trade unions. It is a political agenda. It is echoing the pressures applied to third-sector organisations in the so-called lobbying Act and to the BBC. Bankers, on the other hand, and business go effectively unregulated when it comes to party financing or, indeed, in the case of the banks, to the way they conduct their business despite the havoc they wrought on the world economy. No limit is applied to donations effectively funded by us all as customers and consumers of goods and services by organisations which exercise their right to contribute to the funds of the Conservative Party.
Further, a Government elected with the support of only 24% of the electorate, or 36% of those actually voting, require a minimum turnout threshold of 50%—five times as many as voted in some of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections—with 80% support before industrial action can be taken. The refusal to permit electronic balloting, which the Conservative Party itself uses, is equally wrong-headed, especially in the light of the institution of postal balloting, which the noble Lord, Lord King, referred to, by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, 30 years ago.
Nor does it end there. It would be reasonable to require the costs of a check-off system, whereby union dues are retained by the employer and handed over, to be met by the recipient union. It is already a widespread practice. However, to render agreements between employers and unions in the public sector unlawful is a grotesque interference with, for example, the autonomy of local authorities to conduct their affairs. In fairness, when this was debated in the Commons the Minister, on being pressed by some of his own Back-Benchers, appears to have agreed to consider this aspect further. It will be interesting to learn whether any further discussions have taken place. The Minister said that,
“we absolutely do not intend the measure to be a way of making life difficult for unions”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 10/11/15; col. 325.]
However, it will have that effect, and I hope Ministers will listen to the reservations of their own supporters in that respect.
The proposals centrally to control arrangements for facility time, social partnership forums, health and safety representatives or learning representatives are equally unacceptable, as the North East Regional Employers’ Organisation, representing the region’s 12 local councils has made clear. It stated:
“We are surprised and disappointed that we are to lose the autonomy to take our own decisions around these important areas for employee engagement, particularly given the government’s rhetorical commitments to the localism agenda. We call on the government to think again”.
Similar views have been expressed by those radical organisations, the Royal College of Nursing and the Association of Educational Psychologists, neither of which is affiliated to the Labour Party.
There are also questions to be asked about what counts as a public service, since the Government seek to apply their most stringent restrictions to unions operating in that sphere. Will the new regime apply to outsourced public services, such as prisons and academies or free schools, or perhaps extend to privatised industries, such as the utilities or the railways?
The problem is that, quite apart from its party-political motivation, echoing the reduction in Short money support for all the opposition parties while the pay bill for government special advisers soars, the Government, unlike many others, notably in Germany, do not value the role of trade unions as partners in the economy or in the provision of public services. They seem all too ready to acquiesce in, if not actually to promote, a Sports Direct approach to workers and their rights. That is not the right path for a modern productive economy and well-run, responsive public services.
To return to Margaret Thatcher’s words in 1975, this Bill limits rather than permits and assists the trade unions in carrying out their legitimate function. In the words of an even higher authority, cited in the Book of Daniel—that is the prophet, not the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, who is no longer in his place—too many of its provisions have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The Government need to think again and this House should assist them in so doing.