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My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Local Government Association. My other interests are listed in the register.
I suspect that I have been subject to as much personal challenge from the trade unions in my different roles as almost anyone in this Chamber. In Sheffield, I as chief executive had to take forward some very tough budget decisions, including major spending reductions, staff redundancies and outsourcing of services. The setting up of the Homes and Communities Agency involved bringing together two very different organisations, with consequent major restructuring and relocation of services. As Permanent Secretary to the Department for Communities and Local Government, I oversaw the reduction in size of the department by more than one-third and the closure of the government offices. The Civil Service, while I was head of it, experienced the largest cuts since the Second World War. Each of these changes was fiercely contested by the trade unions affected. Although I was clearly implementing the decisions of elected politicians, it was not unusual for trade unions to play the man, not the ball. I would say in passing that there were some tweets that I could not repeat in this Chamber or indeed anywhere else in polite company.
Given that experience, you might think that I would welcome the Bill. I most assuredly do not. While there are measures to bring greater transparency that I welcome, the main thrust of the proposals seems to be both partisan and disproportionate to the supposed problem that they are trying to address. When this is taken with the other measures being put forward by the Government—the curtailing of the powers of this House, the moves to water down the Freedom of Information Act and the reduction in so-called short money to support opposition parties—there appears to me to be a worryingly authoritarian streak emerging from this Government, who are uncomfortable with scrutiny and challenge. I am sure that the Government will protest at this and say that it is unfair and that each issue needs to be considered on its own merits, but for me the cumulative effect of these measures seems hard to deny.
All Governments are inclined as time goes on to become more arrogant, less good at listening and more certain that their view is right. The electorate quickly work this out and vote accordingly. What is much more worrying is when a Government act to weaken those institutions and organisations that have the temerity to oppose them. It is this point that all of us in this House, in all parties, should become more concerned about. It is against that test and our commitment to an open, plural democracy that the Bill needs to be judged.
I have four main concerns with the Bill as drafted. The first is its provisions for ballots for industrial action. It does not seem unreasonable to set a threshold for turnout; indeed, most trade union leaders would think carefully about pursuing industrial action without such a mandate. It is worth noting in passing, though, that we will have no threshold in the referendum on whether we remain in the EU, and this threshold would be a level of turnout that police and crime commissioners could only dream of. The 40% support of the membership required for action in important public services is a very stiff test indeed. As has been said, the current Government happily govern with fewer than one-quarter of the electorate supporting it, and fewer than 40% of those who voted. That tells me as much about why we need electoral reform in this country as it does about trade union democracy.
What is hard to contend with, though, is that trade unions will not be able to conduct such ballots electronically. As chief executive of Sheffield, I was responsible in 2007 for running what is still probably the largest electronic voting pilot in this country. The scheme had its challenges, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, will testify, not least the compressed timescale for implementation. However, I became convinced during the pilot that electronic voting can provide at least as much, if not more, security than postal voting. Since that time, people have come to carry out vastly more of their day-to-day activities online, from banking to shopping to hospital appointments. It would therefore be an entirely logical extension to be able to vote in trade union ballots in this way. The denial of that option seems therefore to be to frustrate the efforts of unions to secure their mandate for action.
My second concern is the introduction of the opt-in requirement for union members to contribute to political funds. Other noble Lords have spoken about this at length, so there is no need for me to repeat what they have said. However, in the absence of a proper review of the funding of all political parties in this country, this can be seen only as a one-sided attempt by one political party to undermine the main funding source of another. It is hard to see how it serves any other purpose than that. The first step before any such change is implemented therefore ought to be a cross-party review of funding.
My third major concern is the proposed reserve powers on paid time off for union officials and the prohibition on the deduction of union subscriptions from payroll. As has been said, these would apply to all public bodies, central and local, regardless of whether those bodies themselves want to act in a different way. These measures seem extraordinarily centralising and completely disproportionate to the issues involved. The introduction of these types of arrangements was designed to facilitate good industrial relations and make it easier for employees to pay their subscriptions. There are arguments for and against the actual level of trade union facilities in any organisation, and indeed whether officials should be full-time or part-time, while it is perfectly reasonable—indeed, it should be an option—for members to pay their subscription through direct debits rather than the payroll. What seems completely unacceptable, though, is for central government to dictate this.
Local government in particular ought to be able to come to its own local arrangements with its trade unions and employees. The transparency provisions of the Bill, and indeed the Freedom of Information Act, will mean that the local electorate can see just how much this is costing. Indeed, local authorities should be, and in some cases already are, able to make an economic charge for the cost of deductions, which in my personal experience is a minimal sum. For a Government who are committed to decentralisation then to seek to dictate in this level of detail how a local authority conducts its industrial relations affairs is perverse in the extreme. It is worth mentioning that this measure applies to the whole of the United Kingdom when it is abundantly clear that there is absolutely no appetite for these changes in the devolved nations.
My fourth and final area of concern is the extension of the role and powers of the Certification Officer. These changes will bring considerable new responsibilities and costs to the office. They will bring new regulatory burdens to the trade unions themselves and, if the levy provisions in the Bill are agreed, significant additional costs in funding it. For the smaller unions, such as the First Division Association, which I worked with extensively and constructively as head of the Civil Service, this will not be a small burden. I have searched as hard as I can but have found it impossible to establish any independent evidence supporting the need for this additional regulation. Given the Government’s commitment to reducing regulatory burdens, we might have expected to see significant concerns being expressed by either employers, trade union members or indeed the Certification Officer himself about the current arrangements. I have taken the trouble to go back and read the last annual report of the Certification Officer—there is dedication for you. The most eventful thing that I could find in it was the enforced move out of Euston Tower to the BIS headquarters in Victoria Street due to the building being structurally unsafe. It is hard to think of any other sector where new regulatory burdens of this sort have been or would be introduced with such little evidence to support them.
The biggest mistake of this House would be to see the Bill in purely technical terms. Its import is much greater than this. A Government elected with less than a quarter of the votes of the electorate should act with humility and balance. This is not a balanced Bill. I note, as others have, the continuing human rights issues that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has expressed about the Bill.
For all the frustrating moments I had in dealing with the unions over the years, I could see the important role they played in representing the collective and individual interests of their members. There was also a real benefit to me as a manager in being able to work with them to resolve individual issues and reach collective agreements on change. They have a powerful role, which we should seek to support. I hope that, notwithstanding their manifesto commitments, the Government will be open to making significant changes to the Bill as it passes through this House. It most certainly needs it.