Relevant documents: 15th and 20th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Ballots: 50% turnout requirement
Moved by Lord Kerslake
1: Clause 2, page 1, line 14, at end insert—
“(3) Subsection (1) shall not come into force until—
(a) an independent report is published, and laid before each House of Parliament, which has been prepared by the Central Arbitration Committee in consultation with qualified independent persons, on the delivery of secure methods of electronic, postal and workplace balloting for the purpose of ballots held under section 226 of the 1992 Act, and
(b) the Secretary of State has considered the report and published, and laid before each House of Parliament, a verification strategy for the rollout of secure electronic, workplace and postal balloting methods for the purpose of ballots held under section 226 of the 1992 Act.
(4) The Secretary of State must publish and lay before each House of Parliament the strategy provided for by subsection (3)(b) no later than two months after the date on which this Act is passed.
(5) The report provided for by subsection (3)(a) must include—
(a) an analysis of different methods of authentication that can be used to enable voters to cast their electronic votes such as single use security codes, personal identification information or membership affiliation information;
(b) an assessment of the ability of electronic voting systems to identify that the information being provided to authenticate the voter is the information required to enable a vote to be cast and recorded in that particular ballot and that the information is unique to the voter;
(c) an assessment of the ability of trade unions appropriately to secure means of distribution required for the delivery of electronic voting information to maintain the security and integrity of any ballot;
(d) a cost benefit analysis of the risks involved in methods of distribution such as email, post, text messaging and face-to-face methods;
(e) an assessment of existing recognised industry standards for online voting systems; and
(f) analysis of the role of third party administrators and the benefits of using rigorous quality assurance procedures and processes for delivering electronic voting.
(6) The verification strategy provided for by subsection (3)(b) must include an assessment of how alternative, secure, methods of balloting will impact voter turnout.
(7) For the purpose of preparing the strategy, the Secretary of State must consult relevant organisations including professionals from expert associations to seek their advice and recommendations.”
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 1 and indicate my support for the other amendments in this grouping. The central tenet of all the amendments, tabled and supported by Members of all parties and none, is the same: namely, that if we are to introduce thresholds on trade union ballots before industrial action is taken, we should seek to enable the widest range of methods for members to place their vote.
This seems such an obviously right thing to do that it is surprising to me that we have to debate it. If we believe that important decisions on whether to take industrial action should have the widest possible engagement and participation of those involved, we must surely all want to take whatever practical steps we can to encourage it.
Currently, ballots for industrial action can take place only through postal ballots. However, ballots for trade union recognition, which apply the same thresholds as proposed in the Bill for industrial action, can now take place through workplace ballots, so we already have a difference. At present, neither can be done through electronic balloting.
Digital technology has moved on fantastically since the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 was passed. We now expect routinely to undertake activities such as banking and shopping in a way that would have been unimaginable then. Today, 82% of adults are online. The public in general and trade union members in particular now expect to have the digital choice—an important point. It is a choice that their trade unions ought to be able to give them. The Government’s own policy is to be digital by default in the delivery of their services.
There is absolutely no doubt that electronic balloting can be made to work. I used it myself in Sheffield for the local and general elections as far back as 2007. The use of electronic voting has come on in leaps and bounds since then. For example, in 2014, more than 400 organisations throughout the UK provided their stakeholders with the opportunity to cast votes electronically using the services of Electoral Reform Services Ltd, an independent supplier of ballot and election services. These involved a wide range of bodies from companies to community-based organisations, with more than a million votes cast.
ERS is confident that it can meet the required standards for ballots under the 1992 Act—namely, that those who are entitled to vote have the opportunity to do so; that votes are cast in secret; and that the risk of unfairness or malpractice is minimised. It believes that it can meet all those tests. Given the widespread use of electronic balloting, the only possible remaining issue is security.
As a former returning officer, I take the issue of voting security very seriously. We should take every practical step to ensure that ballots of all types are as secure as they can possibly be. However, we should also be realistic and say that no system of voting can be made completely and utterly secure, just as no system of online banking can be completely protected from fraud. Therefore, the question is whether electronic balloting can be done in a way that is as secure, if not more so, as postal balloting. That is the key test. I am absolutely convinced that it can, and there is good evidence from Electoral Reform Services and others to back that up.
The response from Ministers so far to what I think is a perfectly reasonable request from the trade unions is to raise—rather vaguely, in my view—security concerns and then to seek to push the issue off for another day. I really do not think that this is an adequate or fair response when there is an opportunity to deal with the issue now. My amendments therefore propose that before the thresholds set out in the Bill come into force, two things should happen: first, an independent report should be undertaken by the Central Arbitration Committee on the delivery of secure methods of electronic, postal and workplace ballots; and, secondly, the Secretary of State should have considered this report and laid before each House of Parliament a verification strategy for the rollout of such balloting methods. I have set a timetable of two months after the Act has passed for the strategy to be done.
The amendment would allow the CAC, a well-established and respected arm’s-length public body, to look at the issues objectively and to give us its views. It is well within the remit of the CAC to undertake this review. Indeed, there is provision within its regulatory framework to introduce electronic methods for recognition ballots now—a provision that has so far not been taken up. The CAC has considerable experience in organising secure ballots but would not claim to be expert in electronic balloting. I have therefore included in the amendment provision that it could draw on an independent qualified person who is such an expert.
I am absolutely persuaded that we could securely introduce electronic and workplace balloting now. However, I recognise that to date this has not been the Government’s position. I have therefore, through this amendment, sought to meet the Government half way. Whether they are prepared to go the other half will be a test of their willingness to engage in open and constructive debate on the Bill. I beg to move.
As the Committee will see, Clauses 2 and 3 introduce arbitrary thresholds of turnout and majorities in relation to union strike ballots, particularly affecting certain sectors. Never mind, for the moment, that no other organisations are under the same statutory restrictions as far as their ballots are concerned. Never mind, for the moment, the glaring discrepancies between these requirements and the requirements that exist for ballots in political life; for example, we all know the embarrassment of the low turnout for police commissioner elections in particular, and there are one or two other examples. And perhaps never mind, for the moment, the unprecedented nature of these requirements on trade unions, certainly in western Europe. The fact is that these thresholds must be seen alongside the existing requirement that a union must use postal ballots. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, has just explained, this has been the case since 1992.
Looking at different countries, only in Australia are there similarly tough thresholds on unions as far as strikes and other industrial action ballots are concerned. But in Australia, it is normal to use workplace ballots, with the postal ballot as the default position, and unions there can use online balloting too. This amendment seeks to develop that case for the United Kingdom.
In the impact assessment, which I am pleased we have now had a chance to look at—better late than never—the Government claim that the proposals are not about banning strikes and, rather disingenuously, claim that the thresholds are in fact an attempt to make the balance better. Other countries in western Europe are mentioned in the impact assessment, including Denmark and Germany, which do use thresholds in strike ballots. However, in both cases, those are agreed arrangements with the unions concerned that go back a number of years and, in the main, were done just after the end of the Second World War. But, again, there is no requirement on the method of balloting to be used in those countries. So, nowhere else in the advanced world is the requirement on how to ballot linked to questions of threshold, and nowhere else is there a requirement to have a mandatory postal ballot.
Those familiar with parliamentary elections—and there are many in this House—will know that easier rules on postal balloting were introduced to increase turnout. People apply for a postal vote from the local returning officer. In the union world, the ballot form is different; it is not solicited in the same way. It drops through the post with all the other stuff that we get and, too often, gets put to one side, forgotten about and ends up in the recycling bin. It has depressed turnout figures in most unions; it has certainly not increased them. The Government clearly do not trust—at the moment, anyway—alternative methods. In their wish to curtail the relatively few strikes that do take place in the UK today, the Government are using the combination of high thresholds plus postal ballots as a way of stamping out dissent and protest.
What redress is left to employees in these circumstances? Just imagine, for a moment, a large retailer with many casual workers, often low paid, a very high labour turnover and some harsh management practices: Sports Direct just happens to spring to my mind immediately. Under the proposed provisions in the Bill, how could workers do much collectively about the conditions in which they work? It would be virtually impossible, for example, to take lawful industrial action. I have to say that in some of these companies, it would not be easy to do that at all, even without postal ballots or any thresholds. However, it seems to me that an important artery of democracy is being blocked by making things more difficult. Not everybody is in a school or works for Transport for London—a tight group of workers with a common identity who are therefore relatively easy to organise.
The amendment in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Kerslake and Lord Oates, and myself suggests that Clauses 2 and 3 should not come into effect until an independent review has been carried out by the CAC. The Central Arbitration Committee is probably not very well known to most of the British population. It is a relatively small organisation, but it conducts ballots under the law on trade union applications for recognition. The turnouts in the ballots that it conducts are always high, and no evidence of fraud has been found since it started doing this work. It can decide on the most appropriate means of holding a recognition ballot—for example, with a dispersed workforce it could well use postal balloting, whereas with a concentrated workforce it would make sense to have a properly supervised ballot box. The key is proper supervision, with an independent scrutineer and a properly secure balloting method. The CAC has not yet used e-balloting, although as the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said, it has the ability to use it.
Our amendment asks that before the provisions of the Bill come into force, the CAC be asked to conduct a review of the delivery of the various means of voting on industrial action. It would be asked to prepare an independent report to be laid before both Houses of Parliament considering the different methods of authenticating voter identification and security systems for electronic voting, and providing a cost-benefit analysis for unions using those different methods of balloting. As has been explained, the Secretary of State would be required to lay before Parliament,
“a … strategy for the rollout of secure electronic, workplace and postal balloting methods”, on industrial action.
That seems to me, as I hope it seems to most noble Lords present, a very reasonable proposition, and I hope the Government will open their mind to it. It must be obvious to any fair-minded person that, provided that the balloting method is secure and can be trusted, unions should not be impeded from taking lawful steps in the interests of their members. The current proposals are draconian—unacceptably hard. The measures in the amendment and the other amendments in the group seek to make them more practical and fairer.
If e-balloting is good enough for the Conservative candidate in the London mayoral election, surely it is good enough for wider application—and it could ease the burdens that the Bill is putting on unions. I have a vision of a certain Minister acting like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Whitehall, scurrying around collecting ideas for hobbling trade unions and slapping as much red tape as they can find on them. This is unfair and unjust: it is the opposite of one-nation Conservatism. There are huge problems in the British labour market—problems of inequality, casualisation and productivity—but what trade unions are up to at the moment is not one of those problems. Rather, it has been picked on by the Government to attack. I hope they will think a bit more maturely about what they are doing, and try to find a way of making some of these provisions more acceptable. I hope that by adopting the amendment, or one very much like it, we will get a better, fairer and much more balanced Bill—one that the Government can be proud of, and the rest of us can live with.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and of the other amendments in the group. I should first apologise to the Committee as I was not able to speak at Second Reading. That was an administrative mess-up on my part. I hope the Committee will forgive me, as a relative newcomer, for such a breach of protocol. I was, however, present throughout the debate, and listened carefully to the many significant points made by noble Lords, and to the Minister’s response.
We shall have the chance to discuss the merits or otherwise of the introduction of thresholds later today, but without doubt, as the noble Lord, Lord Monks, made clear, this is a significant departure from the usual democratic practices of this country—indeed, from those of any comparable democracy in the world. Given that fact, I would expect the Government, in putting forward such radical proposals, to accompany them with a means to ensure maximum participation and to take the opportunity to modernise balloting procedures.
The Minister stated at Second Reading that the Government’s purpose in bringing forward the Trade Union Bill was to modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members. One might debate whether that is not more properly an issue for trade unions and their members rather than for the Government but, be that as it may, if Ministers are sincere in their protestations about modernisation, it is unclear why they are resisting the one obvious modernisation measure—the proposal to allow electronic and other forms of balloting that could help increase participation.
The other amendments in the group, in slightly different ways, seek to achieve that purpose with the safeguard of independent scrutiny to ensure those ballots are conducted properly and without intimidation. I support those amendments because I am convinced that we could introduce electronic and workplace balloting now. However, we heard at Second Reading that the Government remain opposed. The Minister questioned whether electronic ballots would be secure or open to intimidation and vote-buying. The amendment in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Kerslake and Lord Monks, and myself, provide the Government with the opportunity to properly test this issue with the assistance of the Central Arbitration Committee, a respected body which has considerable experience on the issue of balloting, as well as with others with expertise in the specific field of electronic balloting. If security really is the issue, these amendments can help get to the bottom of whether it is possible to use alternative means of balloting in a manner as secure as, if not more secure than, the current postal ballot system.
The Government’s approach to these amendments will be important because it will give an indication of whether they are sincere in the claim, repeated by the Minister at Second Reading, that the Government’s objection to electronic voting is not a matter of principle but one of practicality. It will reveal whether the Government really want more people to participate in trade union ballots but cannot see a practical way to make it happen, as they claim, or whether, as many of us believe, their sole objective is to make it as difficult as possible for trade unions to take industrial action. I hope I am wrong in that belief and that the Minister will expose it as entirely unwarranted cynicism by accepting these amendments. If she is unable to do so, we will know where the Government stand.
My Lords, your Lordships will have seen the report published last Friday by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the application of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of association, including the right to form and join a trade union. This is of particular relevance to the issue we are debating—electronic balloting.
The Joint Committee’s report mentions that in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights dismissed a complaint brought by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers about the ban on secondary action. I declare an interest: I was counsel for the United Kingdom Government in that case. The European court said that it will generally respect a legislature’s policy choices in relation to social and economic issues, including its laws on industrial relations, which it accurately describes as a,
“legislative policy area of recognised sensitivity”, unless the choices the legislature makes are “manifestly without reasonable foundation”.
The European court said that a democratically elected Parliament is “better placed” to identify,
“what is in the public interest on social and economic grounds”.
The Joint Committee points out that the European court added that, the more far-reaching the interference with a core trade union activity—for example, requiring the dissolution of a trade union—the greater the justification required. I think, however, that the European court and courts in this country would almost certainly regard the basic provisions in Clauses 2 and 3 as not going to the core of trade union activity because the existence of trade unions and the rights to call a strike are unaffected, albeit that important limits and conditions are imposed. Parliament would, I think, be acting well within its broad scope of discretion if we decided that the disruption to the lives of others caused by strikes, particularly in the public sector, justified the general measures in Clauses 2 and 3.
I would be very surprised if the European court were to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Monks, that the threshold provisions are arbitrary. However, I agree with the Joint Committee that the Government may be vulnerable to a legal challenge under Article 11 because a court will consider the package of statutory provisions as a whole when it assesses whether those provisions are proportionate and whether they have an objective justification. If the Government do not compromise on some of the less attractive provisions of the Bill, to which we will come, such as check-off, they will be at much greater risk of a human rights complaint being taken seriously by the court.
Clauses 2 and 3 would be particularly vulnerable to legal challenge if the Government refuse to allow for electronic balloting. Allowing online balloting would manifestly promote the professed objective of the Bill to enhance democratic decision-making on strikes. My advice to the Government is to consider carefully the amendments in this group and to seek an accommodation to allow electronic balloting to reduce what will otherwise be the legal vulnerability of Clauses 2 and 3, which could damage an important objective of the Bill.
My Lords, I declare my interests as president of the British Dietetic Association, a TUC-affiliated union, and an unpaid adviser to BALPA, the pilots’ union. I also remind the Committee, as I do virtually every time I speak on the trade unions, that 30% of trade unionists—in fact, slightly more, we estimate—vote for the Conservative Party in general elections. Sometimes we tend to forget that and to think that the trade union movement is a sort of Labour Party at play. It is not. It is as diverse, almost, as the rest of the country.
In speaking about electronic balloting, I point out that I am always pleased when Governments carry out what is in their manifestos. It is not something that I have been used to for the whole of my political life. However, I must say to the Minister that at no point in the Conservative Party manifesto is anything mentioned about electronic balloting not being allowed. Therefore, this clause in the Bill is in no way connected with the election manifesto, although quite a few other clauses are and I will not be opposing them.
I think that the Government are under the illusion that a lower turnout would somehow help to prevent industrial action. There is not much evidence for that. If anything, the people who do not vote may be less likely to support industrial action, but I do not think that one really knows. However, I know that strikes are not undertaken lightly. I have never been on strike in my life, but that is not unusual. Most trade unionists have never been on strike. They join their trade union for a wide variety of reasons. For instance, lollipop ladies who join UNISON get £5,000-worth of life insurance—an extremely valuable benefit that comes with their subscription. Most other unions offer a package of services. My union, Unite, offers a free legal advice service to all its members. I must say, having used it on two occasions, that it is an excellent service staffed by good solicitors.
I digress slightly, but by tabling my amendment I am not saying that this is the only way to deal with electronic balloting. There are, after all, five separate amendments on it. We will not force them to a Division, but I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity after the debate to look carefully at what has been said and who is in favour. She will have had a paper from 16 of what I would call the most moderate unions in Britain, all affiliated to the TUC. It says:
“At a time when many government departments are adopting a ‘digital first’ approach it is perverse that the … bill prevents unions”, from running online ballots. It continues:
“If the government wishes for unions to ballot … members more often, and to shorten timeframes for industrial action”, then unions should be allowed to,
“operate in the most efficient way possible”.
The First Division Association, which is the union of the most senior civil servants and which would look at how to make this work, has stated:
“The continued prohibition of electronic balloting for statutory ballots supports the view that the purpose of these reforms is to impede trade unions rather than encourage democracy as claimed”.
Despite this opportunity to make a positive reform, the Government have chosen to retain the ban on electronic balloting. These are not wild people.
As the Minister will know, because she was good enough to meet BALPA with me last week, and in response to her request, the general secretary of BALPA, Jim McAuslan, sent her a two-page letter, three-quarters of which is a list of organisations that have allowed electronic balloting to take place without any problems coming up. I will quote one other group that is not normally found in the same box as the TUC. The Institute of Directors has stated:
“Provided that a fair and transparent system of electronic voting can be delivered, there is no reason why—in return for asking for a higher level of legitimacy—the union movement should not be allowed to embrace technological advances to increase participation”.
That is fairly clear.
My challenge to the Minister and to the Government is to take the words of Nick Boles in another place that the Government did not object in principle to the introduction of e-balloting, but they had reservations about security. My view is that those reservations can be addressed and that, in a fast-moving technological world, they are not significant enough to keep this out of the Bill. The technology moves extremely fast. My amendment, like the others, provides safeguards in the implementation of the proposed new clause. It does not say that unions can set up their own electronic balloting company and have a closed system. All the amendments, in some way or other, provide for checks and balances that would enable the reservations of the Minister to be met.
Recently, an organisation called WebRoots Democracy produced a rather thick report dealing with many of the objections to e-balloting and pointing out ways forward. What is certain is that we will not get those ways forward and we will not end up where we want to be unless this goes into the Bill. So I ask the Minister to go away, rethink, look at what can be done and take note of the very strong feeling in many parts of this House that the time has come for the legislation to be put in place. This is a reform that can be made to work and I urge the Minister to make it possible.
My Lords, I shall give two reasons as to why the Central Arbitration Committee is uniquely qualified to carry out the inquiry and report as stated in the lead amendment in this group. I declare an interest as an ex-member of the Central Arbitration Committee. It has the following qualities. Most inquiries are judge-led. There is typically a judge, someone with experience of employers’ organisations—that is, an employer—and someone with experience of an organisation of workers, normally a trade union person. So employers would be confident that their experience was built in to the inquiry. I think the Minister could take that as an indication of the confidence that one should have in such an inquiry.
Secondly, the CAC has unique experience of what one might call access to the workplace. Of course, there are different models on show in this debate and no one is trying to say, as I understand it, that only one model can work. However, there are enormous issues around contact in the workplace and it is a fact, as far as I know, that over the 15 years or so of the operation of the CAC, no one has ever queried the standards. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, is nodding his head. I think it is a remarkable record that everybody has confidence in the modus operandi of the Central Arbitration Committee.
My Lords, I, too, support this group of amendments; indeed, the arguments in favour seem compelling. It is a modest enough proposal and its safeguards are implicit in the very nature of the report which is canvassed. Personally, I support the turnout requirement in Clauses 2 and 3, but I cannot resist pointing to the bizarre consequences that could, at least theoretically, result from the new provision.
To take the illustration used in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill of a bargaining unit of 1,000 union members, if 499 vote in favour of industrial action and none against, a strike would be unlawful. If, however, 499 vote in favour and one against, then, because at least 50% of those eligible will have voted, a strike is permitted. So, too, of course, if 499 vote in favour of industrial action and 498 against. Doubtless, such anomalous possibilities as these are inevitable in any scheme, which, as here, has a combination of a turnout requirement but then a decision on the basis of a simple majority. However, it surely underlines—and this is my point—the imperative of ensuring that the best possible way is sought of achieving a maximum turnout of those eligible to vote. These amendments surely allow for that better way.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. I ask myself: why? I will make a plea for a travelling section of workers who are sometimes never seen because they are on unsocial hours and shifts—transport drivers, in particular. Not so long ago, a transport driver would work a five-day week. At the weekend, he—and it was more likely to be a he—would go along to the branch meeting in a local pub and cast a vote. Those arrangements no longer exist because of domestic and other demands on the time of the driver, who might be away throughout the week.
Very often the press, and indeed the general public and some politicians, cast real doubts on balloting arrangements. They reckon that they are unconstitutional, not fair and subject to a host of practices which are not democratic. I am pleased about this amendment because, at last, a methodology of engagement and participation can be found. It can be trusted and realised. Democracy at work in today’s world is important; Amendment 1 brings about its achievement.
The flexibility offered by the amendment will improve that democracy and public confidence in trade unionism. I am sure that it will find support among the large majority of employers, because when the press reports any malfunction of a process in a particular workplace, it is about not just the trade unions or the individual but the name and reputation of that enterprise. This amendment would therefore, in my judgment, bring about support and authority for all the parties concerned.
For those reasons, and because I believe that democracy can be found in and out of the workplace, I hope that Amendment 1 will carry support in this Chamber.
My Lords, it was nearly 50 years ago that I enrolled as a member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. I say that I enrolled, but I was enrolled—I had no choice. I was working between school and university and I worked in the Land Rover factory in Solihull helping to make Land Rover Defenders, the last of which have recently rolled off the production line. Since then, because of my career in the church, my direct involvement in the trade union movement has obviously been less, but I endorse what has been said about the union Unite, which some clergy belong to. It provides good advice and I much encourage my clergy, if they want, to join that union.
The 50 years since I ceased to be a member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union have been difficult for trade unions, one way or another. But they have a vital role going forward, not least in our globalised world which is driven by large economic forces. They have a place, but the key thing is to emphasise the process of modernisation, to which reference has been made. I, for one, fully accept that strike action should not result from a small and vocal minority dictating things to others, and I can broadly support the provisions in Clauses 2 and 3. It is a matter of judgment and it is in one sense arbitrary just where you draw that judgment. We will come on to that later. It seems to me that at the heart of the combination of Clauses 1, 2 and 3 is—to use a word which I think we have not used so far in the debate—a matter of fairness. That is what lies behind Article 11, to which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, referred. It is fundamentally a question of what is a fair position, balancing all sorts of different considerations.
Having listened to the debate so far and some very interesting speeches—not least that by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, behind me—issues of fairness indicate that a proper consideration of electronic voting should be part of the process of modernisation. I offer, in conclusion, a final encouragement. If the General Synod of the Church of England can embrace electronic voting, so can we.
My Lords, I was wholeheartedly with the right reverend Prelate until he called the General Synod in aid, but he was totally right about fairness. As someone who does nothing electronically and has no intention of doing anything online at all, I believe we have to accept that those who want to move with the times in that way should be able to do so. My noble friend Lord Balfe made an impeccable case, as did the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I find no particular affection for this Bill, but it is essential that when it goes on to the statute book—as it surely will—it must be seen to be fair. The right reverend Prelate is, of course, right. I pulled his leg, but if the Church of England can do it then we must allow the trade unions to do it. It must be fully supervised and properly secure. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said, nothing is ever 100% secure—which is why I would never do online banking—but we can do most things to ensure that the system is secure.
I want to do one thing and one thing only: to appeal to the fairness of the Minister who will come to reply. It is the function of this House, from time to time, to ask another place, and the Government, to think again. In no sense does this destroy or undermine the Bill, but it allows those who wish to vote to do so, in privacy, online. One could argue that they might be under less pressure than if they voted in my preferred way—in the workplace—or by post. We have seen so many abuses of the postal voting system in general elections that we cannot hold that up as a great example. I hope my noble friend will bear in mind the words of Mr Nick Boles in another place, which have already been quoted: if there is no objection in principle then let us make sure we enact in practice.
My Lords, I added my name enthusiastically to that of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on Amendment 22 about electronic voting. I thank him for his wise words, spoken with authority and knowledge of trade union activities. That is not necessarily linked automatically to the Labour Party in any way. This is especially so in the modern world, compared to the past when it might have been more automatic with the big trade unions. We now see a much more open scenario and there are many who support or vote for the Conservative Party in general elections who are enthusiastic about their own membership of different kinds of trade unions. That should be the norm in any modern, balanced society. It should not be two competing elites with nothing moveable in between.
This amendment helps to widen the possibilities for voting for strike action in the future. This is so infrequent and rare in British society nowadays, compared to the past, that it is not a general problem at all. That adds to the need for this cluster of amendments. I am referring now to Amendment 22, but the rest all fit together. They ask the Government to think again carefully about the underlying reasons why the Bill was introduced. There is still an element of surprise in wider society among people who follow new Bills about why the Bill was engineered and created as it was. Any Government, as was said in the Second Reading debate, who have the authority of only 24% of the electorate, have to be careful to introduce legislation that is not only properly drafted and intelligent but creates consensus, fairness and balance to deal with areas of pressing need for public governance.
There is considerable dismay about the Bill among those who are not keen on any limits on trade union voting activity. In my view, it should be completely open, but the threshold idea has caught on with some people, so one has to accept that it will be supported in the future, to whatever extent that is rational. The Government have to respond to that pressure and think again.
One of the ironies is that the Bill would be easier to get through if the Government responded to intelligent amendments that represent the views of Members from all parties in this House. I hope that the amendments will be received with some interest and enthusiasm in the other place if the Government do what we are requesting today.
On electronic voting, the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, referred in his speech to what he did in Sheffield. Electronic voting is feasible and can be just as secure as any other method of voting if proper procedures are put in place. It can be secure, as provided for in the Central Arbitration Committee report system, which is an excellent part of the amendment drafted by colleagues including Lord Monks.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, expressed reservations about Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown referred to the potential mathematical absurdity of the Government’s latest 50% proposal, which needs changing. All those problems were raised by Cross-Benchers, which is yet another illustration of the substantial changes that need to be made to the Bill.
I was in business for many years and we may compare the fairly easy-going procedures for corporate AGMs with what is being planned to bring the trade unions to heel. That might be an emotional phrase that is used fairly by some people and probably with enthusiasm by some of our right-wing newspapers. It would be a great tragedy if there were one standard for one set of people and another for another.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, very much for his advice on the common-sense element of trade union behaviour. There is a real need to make progress on this cluster of amendments. This is a great opportunity for the Government to refer positively to them and accept the ideas behind them. Then the Bill would make progress in other important areas.
For 30 years, I was president of BALPA, and I notice that the union is very well represented in the Committee today. I beg the Minister to think again about the Bill. Every speech that has been made so far has indicated that the Government ought to think again. We do not know whether the Minister will think again. I plead with her to do so, because this is not an ordinary Bill. It goes to the very heart of what not only the trade union movement or the Labour movement but the whole country thinks about this issue. I hope that the Minister will be more placatory than the Government have indicated so far. I repeat that the Bill is misplaced, as it is written. Therefore, I hope that she will say later on that she is prepared to think again about what the Government are putting forward.
I am very glad that BALPA has set a good example. Although on the whole the executive has been Conservative—there are one or two people who are not, but not many—the important thing about the union is that it is prepared to put aside its political views and think in a way that is representative of the country as a whole. BALPA has done a great deal for British aviation. It is not always right, but on the whole what it has advanced has been for the benefit not only of pilots but of those who use all the airlines in the world. Will the Minister say today that she will think again about the whole virtue and principle of this Bill, which is vitally important?
My Lords, I rise to make clear right at the start that I strongly support Clauses 2 and 3 in this Bill, and I will describe the reasons why. The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, obviously impinges on them, so I shall say a word about that.
The amendment refers to introduction of voting by,
“electronic, postal and workplace balloting”.
I am struck by one thing; this was described as the e-voting debate, but I have not heard a single person yet say that they think that workplace ballots should be reintroduced. In my own judgment, that is the reason why in the 1984 Act, which I had the honour of taking through Parliament, we introduced compulsory postal voting. I am not at all persuaded of the idea that you can get safely back to workplace ballots without intimidation or corruption in certain areas.
There is a need for trade unions, government and the public estate to carry public confidence at all times. If their lives are to be significantly inconvenienced, and in some ways seriously inconvenienced, with great personal distress, there should be proper protection for those people. As has been said already, striking should be only the last resort. That is in the interests of the union members themselves, for whom it may be a very expensive operation that may involve significant loss. They should never be taken out on strike by union leaders except as a last resort. But at all times we have protected that last resort of the right to strike, as was rightly said by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. It is the ultimate freedom—the right that people have under the law.
We talk about trade unions in general as if we were talking about—
May I just finish this point and then I shall give way? We are talking also about the change in the number of strikes. What is very significant is—and the right reverend Prelate referred to 50 years ago being on the shop floor, or maybe in a more senior position at Land Rover—that it was a very different world indeed. The world was very conscious at that time of strikes in the car industry. The noble Lord, Lord Monks, paid an indirect tribute to the progress that had been made under Conservative legislation. He pointed to the much more constructive industrial relations that now exist between the workforce and the management, which has been a major factor and a key to the success of our car industry at the present time. I give way to the noble Lord.
The point is: how do you maximise voting? It is very important that the public have confidence in the number of votes cast in these situations. The latest figure I saw, if it is correct, showed that there are now seven times as many strikes in the public sector as in the private sector. Public sector industries tend to be monopolies and you do not have to live long in London to see that a public sector or monopoly strike, such as happens, sadly, on the Underground and perhaps on the buses, can cause huge disruption and distress for millions of people. This is an issue for Parliament; it is not a party issue. We all have a duty to ensure that the public have the correct protection without preventing the right of a trade union in the final analysis to use its ultimate right to strike. I make that point very clearly. There must a maximisation of that vote, without corruption and intimidation. It must be a full and correct vote.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, piloted electronic voting in Sheffield in 2007 and that is very impressive. I wonder how many people in Sheffield at that time were really familiar with the internet and whether the electronic possibilities had spread to the extent that they obviously have now. What has come with that spread is a far greater threat from the corruption of the internet itself. Everybody knows the challenges of cyber. It is a major defence issue now. We now know that nothing is secure against a cyberattack and the problems associated with hacking are much more prevalent. That is not an argument against electronic voting—before everybody sucks their teeth and thinks I am about to oppose it. I actually think we should bring in electronic voting, but we must do it with our eyes open to the fact that there are now far more risks than existed in 2007.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, will accept that there are now far more challenges and difficulties. I do not think many people outside realise just how insecure those systems are and just how professional different organisations and Governments are who do not bear us any good will and are interested in corrupting and damaging our systems. So if we are going to go ahead with electronic voting, we have to do it after the most careful examination of the challenges, because the worst thing to do would be to introduce electronic voting and then find that it does not work because it is corrupt. That would bring discredit on the whole system.
“Subsection (1) shall not come into force until—”.
I worry that this is trying to kick the whole thing out and that it might be used as a device to prevent Clauses 2 and 3 from coming into effect. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, gave a very helpful speech making it quite clear that it is not his intention to do that, but there is an alternative way to proceed. The Secretary of State has the power under existing legislation, if he wishes to use it, to introduce electronic voting after a proper examination of these issues. That is the alternative way to go.
This is Committee. We shall no doubt return to these issues on Report, but I put that thought to the Minister as a possible way to proceed. I do not want to find that we have delays. If there could be proper consideration and the best possible examination of this by bodies really capable of really examining these very difficult issues that now surround the electronic world, I would support it in the interests of maximising the voting possibility because—my noble friend Lord Balfe made this point very well—the fullest turnout is the best safeguard against the wrong result. Active minorities working against idle majorities is the danger we have to guard against. We need the maximum commitment and the maximum vote in these situations. If electronic voting genuinely free from corruption and distortion can be made to work, I would support it.
My Lords, I want to raise a couple of points that are rather different from those which we have heard thus far.
First, what is the purpose of this legislation? What is the purpose of the Government’s proposal to increase the thresholds for turnout and participation, when we have not heard an inkling about their interest in enabling that increased participation to take place? Many noble Lords have already spoken about using electronic voting. It would be a real step forward and really interesting and heart-warming if the Government were prepared to say that they are prepared to trial it, look at it and to set up a group to study it, but thus far they have said nothing. That makes me very suspicious about the real intention behind the proposal. Could it be that the Government do not want an increase in thresholds to come about? Do they really want more participation, or is this a way of demonstrating that they do not want any strikes, particularly in the public sector, without actually saying that they do not want any strikes, particularly in the public sector?
The noble Lord, Lord King, said that nobody thus far has mentioned workplace voting. I know there is a range of issues and problems, but it might well be useful to take a look at whether, in certain circumstances and certain kinds of workplaces, workplace balloting would be appropriate. However, it seems to me that none of this is the object of the Bill. Increasingly, it looks as though it is an exercise in how to ban strikes without actually banning them. It is very clever. It saves all that performance of perhaps having to face legislation—all the global public opprobrium that would be likely to come from the ILO and others if strikes were banned. It makes it so difficult that most attempts at industrial action would fail. That is how it reads and that is how it is going to work out, it seems to me, if we do not have some measure of understanding from the Government about what is actually being suggested.
I am moved to comment in this way because this is not the only legislation or policy we have had in recent times which makes it appear that the Government are trying to close down voices of opposition. I mentioned at Second Reading the areas where this dismissal of opposition has become apparent. For example, there is English votes for English laws: of course, no pesky Scottish National Party is going to get in the way of things. There are the Boundary Commission’s changes to the electoral register; proposals elsewhere in the Bill to make it more difficult for unions to return and retain their membership lists, thereby certainly reducing membership income; and changes to unions’ ability to build up and retain funds for political and other forms of campaigning. Further, this weekend we heard that restrictions are to be placed on the charitable sector’s ability to conduct public policy campaigns. All that adds up to a frightening and worrying scenario. It all adds up to political interference. As I said earlier, I believe that it will be seen by many people as a very poor show and by many more as a demonstration of very poor judgment.
Many speakers have spoken in detail about the problems associated with postal ballots and participation and I am not going to repeat what they said. However, if industrial action is being considered, the most important work to be done—by unions and employers—is to engage in debate and try to solve the differences that have led to the industrial relations breakdown. Unfortunately, with one or two very good exceptions, few of the people involved in drawing up this legislation seem to have had any experience of the world of work or, certainly, any knowledge of trade unions.
The noble Lord, Lord King, commented that industrial relations now are very different from those that pertained in the days of “the Rover”, as union members always referred to the factory. That is absolutely correct; but the reasons for those changes are many and various. Not least, the improvement in industrial relations has something to do with having a better-trained management than we ever had in the past.
My Lords, I apologise for not being available to speak at Second Reading. I now rise in support of Amendment 20. Along with many other noble Lords, I feel that clause 2 is an attempt by the Government to increase the participation in voting for industrial action. Surely the Minister will support any way of ensuring as large a turnout as possible.
I have taken part in postal votes on industrial action, and other trade union elections, as a member of my present union, BECTU, and as a former member of the NUJ. I have also taken part in elections electronically. I can tell noble Lords that it is much easier for me to take part in the latter ballots. When I talk to my younger colleagues in the media about whether e-voting should be allowed in trade union votes, frankly they are astonished, and in some cases appalled, that it does not happen already. Along with many of us, they already carry out incredibly secure transactions and make huge decisions electronically every day. For them, e-voting would dramatically increase their willingness to take part in any strike votes—which, after all, must be one of the aims of the Bill. Online transactions and decision-making are in every sphere of our lives; they are the reality of the 21st century and ought to be represented in this Bill.
I have read the objections of the Minister in the other place to allowing electronic voting to take place in industrial ballots and other trade union elections. He quoted from the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which recommended not introducing e-voting yet on the grounds that e-voting equipment could not be trusted—that electronic voting software is not accountable and its complexity makes voting insecure. It strikes me that the Speaker’s Commission was looking at UK national elections and European elections, so the issue of trade union elections was not actually relevant. Even so, its recommendation 26 says that secure systems for electronic voting should be an option for voters in the 2020 general election.
Like my noble friend Lord Kerslake, I have spoken to Electronic Reform Services. As he said, it has supervised elections involving 400 organisations, and of course the Conservative Party used electronic voting in its own primaries for the London mayoral elections. If electronic voting is fine for these organisations, surely it should be considered for trade union elections as well. I also understand that, under the previous coalition Government, work was commissioned by the then BIS Secretary, Vince Cable, to investigate whether e-voting for trade unions was viable. I would be grateful if the Minister let the House know the findings of that work.
The noble Lord, Lord King, expressed his concern about how insecure electronic voting could be. Amendment 20 is a convincing response to any fears there might be about trade union e-voting being insecure, and whether the systems would be accountable. The Minister in the other place said he was willing to discuss practical objections with opposition parties, and anyone else in society, to overcome those objections. This amendment is a very good basis for such discussions.
Electronic Reform Services has indeed brought out a report, which seems to work very well with paragraphs (a) to (e) of new subsection 6 in the amendment. It has a voting system that could be made secure by separating the database used for the distribution of voter information from the database of the system used to store the votes that have been cast electronically. In that way, ERS can ensure that the voter’s identity is separated from their preference, as currently happens with postal votes in public elections. It can also ensure that the identity of the voter is authenticated by issuing randomly generated single-use security codes to enable them to access the electronic voting system. Alternatively, voters could provide personal identifiers such as dates of birth and membership numbers, but the former has been recommended as less open to manipulation.
New subsection 6(c) would work very well with ERS’s suggestion that security codes be sent only to the email address registered by the voter, a method that could be enhanced by delivering part of the authentication by a separate means—by email or by post. However, ERS points out that splitting information can be problematic. Through new subsection 6(e), we could ensure that the software system used for electronic voting was built independently using industrial standards, and regularly tested by an approved vendor.
These measures have been good enough for the millions of votes cast electronically over the past few years, and for the Government’s own party’s elections in the London mayoral elections, so surely this method would be good enough to ensure a high turnout for trade union votes. I commend the amendment to your Lordships’ House in the name of democracy.
My Lords, I must apologise to the House. My head is full of cold, and if I expire half way through my remarks I know that at least I shall have the support of a large number of your Lordships in that. I shall be mercifully short.
I have listened carefully to this interesting debate. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, was wrong when he said in promoting his amendment that the Government were opposed to electronic voting. I trust that they are certainly not opposed in principle; it is more that they have not yet been persuaded of its practicality. That is an important distinction.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, said that surely any system should be right provided that the balloting method is secure and can be trusted. I think we can all agree with that; the question is what that method should be. Anyone who can remember the remarks I made at Second Reading will know that I am generally in favour of e-voting. Postal balloting itself has scarcely been known for its security in many areas. We simply need to get on with it and find the right practical decision.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, has a fundamental flaw. It makes the threshold provisions of subsection (1), which I think are hugely important, consequential on the means of voting. The noble Lord, Lord King, has pointed out the flaw. It is as if the means of voting are more important than the principle of voting itself. I do not think that that is good enough.
The threshold provisions are a manifesto commitment of the Government. I am a little prejudiced—sceptical—about manifesto commitments. We all know how much work goes into manifestos and we all toil away as parties to get to the right sort of provisions. We then ask ourselves how on earth we get anybody to read it and take notice of it. This simple argument—that because a manifesto contains something, it inevitably must pass into law because it has the support of the people—can be stretched too far. When I was responsible for these things in Conservative Central Office back in the 1980s, faced with the problems of trying to get our manifesto publicised and read, we came to the conclusion that the only way to do so was to leak it to the Guardian, where it ended up on the front page. Nevertheless, we are talking about a clear public commitment of the Government, made in a manner that would satisfy the Government of any political persuasion.
I hope and expect the Government will take away the comments that have been made this afternoon in a very serious and sensible fashion, bang them about a bit, get it right and make it work, so that we have the safest possible mechanism to get the maximum turnout in any ballot. By putting the cart before the horse—the mechanism above the principle—the amendment is not helpful and is not the way to go. Although I support many of the details that have been expressed in support of the amendment, I myself cannot support it.
My Lords, I support the amendments and in particular Amendment 21.
In my working career there has been a huge improvement in achieving a democratic mandate for strike action. The House has made the point that strikes are an action of last resort and it is important that whatever mandate is achieved for that strike should have the biggest and most representative turnouts.
If your Lordships look at the ballots and strikes that we have had in recent years—they have decreased in number, which is good—you will see that about 50% have already been achieving 50% turnouts. There has been a huge improvement in the way in which the ballots are conducted, certainly compared with the experience that the noble Lord, Lord King, talked about. We know that a very important social development took place at that time. There was a reaction against the intimidation of the factory gate meetings, but also in unions themselves a big change was going on because people were not attending branch meetings. As a result, those unions that depended on branch meetings to determine strike action were not fully representative.
I remember as a young graduate working for Sid Weighell in the National Union of Railwaymen going along to the No. 1 Euston branch of the NUR on the eve of a one-day strike, which was an action against the Conservative Government’s plans for transport at the time. It was remarkable—there was a room for 50 people, but there were 200 people queuing outside to come in. The branch secretary who was presiding was in a fluster and very bad tempered as to why all these people were suddenly turning up for a branch meeting when they had never come before. The following day, there was an action and Sid Weighell sent me there to find out how representative the feeling was in the union. Clearly, the reason people were turning up was because they did not want the one-day strike to continue.
Anyway, we then introduced postal ballots. We have had long experience that they are secure. We have good experience of them. Fundamentally, they have independent scrutineers to ensure that they are fair and representative, and we have 25 or 30 years’ experience of them. However, there is one problem—that the turnout in postal ballots is still not as high as we would like. If we have this threshold, trade unions will have to work harder to get the turnout up, and they will. They will be able to do second mailings and will use all sorts of means to encourage turnout and make sure that people vote in these important ballots. As we know is the case in general elections, people do not vote when they think that the outcome is predictable but they do vote when it is close, and the unions will be able to get this turnout. I am sure that they will use things such as second mailings and emails to get the turnout up.
The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, was right to say that in the other place the Minister said that he was not convinced about the practicality—he used the Speaker’s commission for that. However, that is unrealistic, because the numbers involved in national elections are vast compared with the numbers in ballots for this sort of strike. Therefore, we need to look at the idea of extending the different ways of voting and it is right that we should also now look at workplace balloting. If there are independent scrutineers, there is no reason why that should not be secure as well.
There has been quite a social change. People are willing to use emails and digitisation to vote, and organisations are already doing that. That will help the turnout.
I do not think that we should consider putting a burden on the unions to get turnout up if we do not help them to do it. That seems to be a fundamental principle, and it will have a benefit. My experience is limited but I am sure that unions already use email addresses. If they go in for electronic voting, they will have to extend email use, and that will improve communication and turnout.
The CAC is already using a variety of methods to test people’s views on recognition, as has been mentioned in this debate. It deals with very sensitive issues. As those experienced in union processes will know, recognition is one of the most bitterly contested issues because employers are sometimes concerned to stop it and the unions are determined to get it. So these are very sensitive ballots and the CAC now has experience of using not just postal ballots but workplace ballots and electronic voting. Therefore, we support the changes proposed in the amendments.
In ending my remarks, I have three questions for the Minister. First, have the Government and Ministers had conversations with the Central Arbitration Committee about the processes used to improve turnout in ballots? Secondly, do the Government not think that the whole digitisation strategy means that, in all sorts of processes, electronic voting is the next stage in extending the voting process in all sorts of organisations? My final question, which is an abrupt one, is: is the Conservative Party satisfied that it had a fair election for its mayoral candidate in London when it used the sorts of processes advocated in these amendments?
My Lords, the first question for me is: will minimum thresholds for industrial action ballots improve democracy in the workplace? If postal voting remains the only option available to trade unions wishing to ballot their members, the answer must be no, and that is because, putting aside the question of whether the introduction of statutory thresholds is desirable, it is in the interests of trade unions and employers for a ballot properly to reflect the opinions of workers. I appreciate and thank—
No. I was thinking of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and trying to think of the correct term for the legal profession—but in fact I do not need to do that. I hate breaching protocol. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, makes a very valid point in this debate: whatever our opinions of thresholds—and this is where the Government will, I hope, think hard about what the noble Lord said—it will undermine the Government’s position, if there is a legal challenge, by denying the opportunity for unions to ensure that there is a full turnout in the vote. So it is incumbent on the Government, in my opinion, to think hard about whether they can push through thresholds without allowing unions to consider other secure methods of voting.
I think that the Government’s response surely must be to see that the best way of increasing participation in union democracy would be to bring ballots into the 21st century by permitting the use of electronic and workplace ballots. Unions are the only organisation in the UK that are legally required to hold postal-only ballots. Postal ballots tend to be more expensive and lead to lower turnout. Postal-only ballots can also unnecessarily extend the voting period. Again, this is an important issue in industrial democracy and industrial action. Faster and equally secure balloting methods could support the earlier resolution of disputes and would also increase participation in union democracy. In answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, clearly the method of voting is a critical factor in participation. The evidence we have is that where unions have the ability to run secure workplace ballots, turnout increases.
What the noble Lord, Lord King, failed to mention in his contribution is that unions are now permitted to use workplace ballots for statutory recognition purposes. That is a very important and vital element to the success of an enterprise: whether a union is recognised. I would say that it would be for the benefit of an enterprise, but maybe the owners of the enterprise would have a different view. But workplace ballots are permitted in these circumstances. We are not talking about going back to the 1970s, with a show of hands and decisions being made at the gate. We are talking about new and modern methods of balloting.
In CAC recognition ballots, individuals vote using paper ballots and secure ballot boxes, and that is overseen by a qualified independent person. Average turnout is significantly higher in workplace ballots, at 88%, than all postal ballots, where the average is 71.6%. Also, there is no evidence that individuals feel pressurised to vote in support of union recognition where workplace ballots take place. Since 2004, the CAC has received a total of only seven complaints of unfair practices during statutory recognition ballots, none of which was upheld.
Can we be assured that secure workplace ballots will not be open to abuse? Electoral Reform Services, which is highly experienced in running industrial ballots, confirms that it is perfectly possible to run workplace ballots that are secret and secure against any possibility of fraud or intimidation. Amendments 19 and 21 in this group, which I have put my name to, would ensure that all ballot methods are confirmed by a scrutineer as safe and secure before they take place. All ballots would be monitored during the process and all outcomes declared safe by the scrutineer. The union would also be required to comply with any recommendations made by the scrutineer.
Amendment 19, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn, keeps the responsibility for the conduct and integrity of the ballot with the existing statutory independent scrutineer, but we recognise that the CAC has experience of statutory workplace recognition ballots, and such expertise should be available to the scrutineer. Existing legislation already requires that scrutineers must be independent of unions. BIS maintains a statutory list of approved scrutineers, and the vast majority of industrial action ballots are overseen by organisations on that list—primarily by Electoral Reform Services.
When a workplace ballot, or any other ballot, is conducted, it is important for employers to have a duty to co-operate with the ballot, as they have in relation to statutory recognition ballots. This could include a duty for employers to work closely with balloting agencies to ensure that company firewalls do not prevent union emails reaching members and that websites are not blocked. This co-operation is already common practice in workplaces holding elections for staff associations, and for information and consultation. Spaces should also be provided for voting free from surveillance by management, and employers should have a duty to ensure that union members can vote free from interference or constraint. Of course, this duty mirrors the existing duty on unions and is therefore even-handed.
As we have heard in the debate, we are not alone in in supporting the use of electronic and workplace balloting methods. As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, even the Institute of Directors has long held the view that unions should be permitted to use electronic voting. Its 2012 policy paper stated,
“Provided that a fair and transparent system of electronic voting can be delivered, there is no reason why—in return for asking for a higher level of legitimacy—the union movement should not be allowed to embrace technological advances”.
I stress the words,
“a higher level of legitimacy”.
Surely that is what the Government are after in imposing thresholds. If they want to ensure that the case for thresholds is sustainable, they should consider the reasonable requests made in the amendments.
The case for electronic ballots has been strongly put in the debate. According to the latest Ofcom figures, 83% of people now have access to broadband and 66% of households own a smartphone. These figures are much higher among those of working age. There is also a growing expectation that individuals should be able to vote electronically in elections. The 2014 Electoral Commission survey found that 42% of respondents felt online voting would increase confidence in the way that elections are run in the UK. These views are particularly prevalent among younger people.
A further indication of the appetite among the British public to digitise democracy is shown by the Government’s own voter registration data. Between the launch of online registration in June 2014 and October 2015, 12 million people registered to vote online. Online balloting can be safe and secure, much like online banking. It is already used for a variety of purposes in both the public and the private sector.
As we have already heard, the Government are proactive in extending digitisation. The Minister has prime responsibility for that, so it is a pity she cannot turn that responsibility away from businesses alone and focus on the needs of workers, too. As the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, pointed out, political parties use electronic voting. Most recently, the Conservatives utilised online voting in the selection of their London mayoral candidate. More than 9,000 people recorded votes on line in that ballot.
As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, highlighted, the Government are increasingly committed to digitisation of government services. Citizens are required now to make changes to their driving licences, pay vehicle excise duty and renew their tax credits—and, in the future, apply for universal credit—online. According to the Government Digital Service, 85% of tax returns are now filed online. On concerns that people are not used to it or are not accepting it, the key point is that people are asking for it.
That is when we come to this debate. The ability of people to exercise their responsibility will be governed by the options of secure voting. While I am satisfied that there is sufficient evidence for the introduction of secure alternative methods of balloting, I accept that if this proposal for a range of secure balloting methods was reviewed and examined by a totally independent source, such as the CAC, others may be more readily convinced than me. This is one measure the Government must surely consider appropriate. They should not sit back and delay but instigate quickly proper measures to ensure a system of alternative secure methods of voting. That is why I, too, support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake.
I hear what noble Lords have said, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, about whether the issue of security is acting as a barrier to the introduction of a commitment in the manifesto. I believe that if the commitment in the manifesto was to be made secure, then the Government would commit to do this first. It sustains the Government’s argument. Of course, in another group I shall be arguing the complete opposite but, for the purpose of this issue, it is important that there is a reasoned and responsible response from the Government. I hope the Minister will engage in an open and constructive debate on this specific aspect of the Bill to ensure that we end up with a system that creates greater participation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, for his amendments and for bringing his wide experience of the public sector to this matter. I welcome new voices and new participants to our debate. We have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Pannick, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. It is good to have lots of people involved in our debate.
The essence of the Bill is to improve fairness and to protect the public from disruptive and undemocratic strike action. As this is the first day in Committee, I want to say that we will be in listening mode.
Let me turn to the subject of these amendments—electronic balloting—which was not in our manifesto, as my noble friend Lord Balfe pointed out. However, let me be clear that the Government have no objection in principle to electronic voting; indeed, we are encouraging a huge programme of digitalisation of the economy as a government. We are moving with the times, in the words of my noble friend Lord Cormack. It is an area of mutual interest to me and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.
However, it is vital that union members, employees, and the public have utmost confidence in ballot processes. Without that, of course, the integrity of the whole system is called into question. Members will not use it, unions will not rely on it, and employers and the public will not trust it. That is not in anyone’s interest.
I should at this point reply to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, and say that the former Secretary of State’s group was looking into the very issues that we are concerned about today, on legitimacy, safety and security of voting. It is clear from this work and from the various reports published on this matter that some important issues still need to be explored further.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, made this point neatly in the types of issue he outlined and wrote into his amendment. These are the matters that the Government have said need further consideration. Although there are more: I believe the amendment fails to address the security issues, such as hacking and malicious attacks, which my noble friend Lord King emphasised. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, proposes the use of the Central Arbitration Committee, also mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Lea of Crondall, and Lord Dykes, but it has no experience of industrial action or electronic balloting. The noble Lord acknowledged that today, but I am not sure that allowing it to bring in an expert quite does it for me.
I am not keen to stop the flow here, but does the noble Baroness not recognise that the CAC does have experience of workplace ballots, statutory recognition ballots? They are not a minor matter for those balloting or, for that matter, the companies subject to those ballots. Does she feel that those are somehow insecure or not valid because they are conducted in the workplace, overseen by the CAC?
That is a different matter. To respond to the question that was asked, we are in fact in contact with the CAC, but to bring in electronic balloting, as I have said, you need to be clear that the matter is extremely carefully addressed. A key area is to ensure that the electronic system correctly establishes an individual’s eligibility to vote. It has to capture the vote accurately while at the same time protecting the individual from being identified. The system needs—and I think there will be a lot of agreement on these points—to be both anonymous, to preserve individual privacy and secrecy, and accountable, to guard against malpractice and fraud.
Is the noble Baroness therefore questioning ballots such as the one in Durham, which finished last weekend, on whether the population want to accept the Northern powerhouse? Is she saying that such ballots, because they include online voting, are not legitimate and should be rejected?
If the noble Baroness will let me make a bit of progress, I am going to address the difference in good order. Obviously, avoiding malpractice and fraud is absolutely critical. I will explain why. There are many respectable organisations that were mentioned this evening, such as the National Trust, that choose to use electronic means to capture votes. However, strikes have a huge effect on our public services and can cause enormous problems for hardworking people. We heard a number of examples at Second Reading.
The public sector strikes in 2011 closed 62% of the schools in England and led the NHS to cancel tens of thousands of operations. We therefore need people to have confidence both in the way the ballot is conducted and in the outcome obtained. Thresholds will provide the level of confidence we need in the outcome that is currently lacking, but the method of voting is a separate matter. Postal ballots already provide appropriate confidence in the way the ballot is conducted, though there have been comments today about them. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said about postal voting, but the Government recognise this, which is why we do not object in principle to electronic balloting.
“I think the provisions in the Bill that are of most concern to businesses are those that ensure that where there is strike action … it reflects a significant voice from the workforce … In principle, I think these are the right provisions”.
On e-balloting, he said that,
“we do not think at the moment the evidence is there that e-balloting can be secure and effective. We do not have a problem in principle with e-balloting, but it is probably premature to have it available … The need to protect the privacy of an individual trade-union member voting is important to their employer, and we would want more assurance that that could be effectively conducted”.—[ Hansard, 13/10/15; col. 6.]
Perhaps this is the point at which I should respond to the noble Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood—
John Cridland did make the point that he was unclear that there was sufficient assurance that the personal details could be maintained, although all companies now put their individuals’ records in electronic form. He never explained any of the duality of that particular point, nor did he go into detail as to why they were more at threat than any other form of individual record. By way of contrast, at the same committee, Dr Marshall from the British Chambers of Commerce said this matter could be dealt with, so I was very dubious as to the evidential basis of John Cridland’s comments. Can the Minister shine any light on that, rather than just quoting his opinion?
I think there is recognition on all sides of the House that checks and safeguards are essential to any electronic balloting process. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, made this point admirably in his amendment. It is clear from today’s debate that noble Lords have given this issue very serious consideration. I have listened very carefully to the points that have been made, and in particular to all the ideas that noble Lords have put forward from all sides of the House. They have expressed their concerns on how to conduct safe and secure electronic ballots for trade unions. I will take a little time to reflect on these points.
In saying that, I want to be clear that it is modernisation of voting systems to which we have no objection in principle. As a Digital Minister, I can say with conviction that online is the way forward, but I agree with my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater that workplace balloting would be a regressive step. We must not lose sight of the fact that, however well supervised the ballot, people still need to get to it. That, unfortunately, provides scope for them to be under pressure of influence or intimidation.
Therefore, while we are keen to explore how to make electronic balloting work, we are not convinced that we could provide, especially in high-profile ballots, sufficient protection for employees voting in the workplace—that is, the protection of privacy and from the risk of intimidation or other influence, be it from the employer or the union.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, was concerned that the practical effect of the thresholds would stop strikes taking place, and that results of other ballots in different areas would not have been legitimate had these thresholds been required. He quoted elections from the other place and, of course, those of the police and crime commissioners. However, the important point relating to all the examples given by noble Lords is that this is not a fair comparison. Everyone could participate freely in these elections and have a democratic say on the outcome. By contrast, only union members are eligible to vote in ballots for strike action and large numbers of people who do not get a say are affected by the outcome. It seems right that stronger support is required for strike action.
My Lords, I am reluctant to intervene and I do not normally, but I am genuinely puzzled by the arguments. Apply all this to the choice of the Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London, which was done electronically: was that not a significant choice? Could it not have a big impact on working people? There seems to be something not quite joined up in the thinking expressed.
I thank the right reverend Prelate, but I see it as different. The difference is that strikes have a huge effect on our public services and can cause significant disruption for hard-working people. We are legislating here not for the mayoralty of London, but for industrial relations. Statutory ballots require strong assurance on issues such as legitimacy, safety and security of voting.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, mentioned that Germany and Denmark use thresholds and that these are not tied to particular ways of voting. However, I do not think that it is helpful to compare UK law and that of other countries when the context of each is so different. It is clear that all the relevant international treaties require national laws to be considered.
Finally in that connection, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, suggested that the proportionality of the proposed thresholds might be vulnerable to challenge were the Government to refuse to allow e-balloting. I note that he acknowledges that thresholds are a proportionate response, given the widespread impact of strikes on the public. I repeat what I have said twice now: we have no objection in principle to electronic methods of balloting, but we need to be reassured on issues of legitimacy, safety and security of voting.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness. All noble Lords now live their lives electronically. I exempt the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, from that, but the rest of us shop, bank and conduct any number of transactions electronically. What is it about a trade union ballot that exempts it from principles that are commonplace in society nowadays?
My Lords, the simple point is that we need to be assured that the electronic ballot will give us a safe and secure outcome. I have heard from many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord King, whose conclusion I agree with, that the fullest turnout is the best safeguard against a wrong result. Frankly, that has been the spirit of several comments this evening. I want to ensure that we take fully into account noble Lords’ detailed knowledge of these matters and experience of how we can get round the difficulties on electronic balloting. I want to reflect further on the very excellent arguments we heard today. I ask noble Lords not to press their amendments.
Before the noble Baroness sits down, I am sorry, but I asked three questions, none of which has been answered. I will not go into all three, but first, have the Government talked about the CAC’s experience of dealing with workplace ballots? Secondly, will she tell us whether the Conservative Party regard the ballot it recently had for its mayoral candidate as safe and secure?
My Lords, I did try to answer in passing the noble Lord’s questions. I think that I answered all three of them. We are satisfied that the arrangements used in London were appropriate for the purpose, but as I have sought to explain, this is a little different. We need to reflect further on the best way to conduct electronic balloting, which we have agreed to in principle.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her response, in particular her undertaking to reflect further on these issues. There were a large number of contributions—I counted a total of 17; I may have missed some—for which I am very grateful to the House. Recognising the length of the debate, and the fact that there are urgent debates to follow, I will not go through every one of those contributions. I ask noble Lords to bear with me. I shall highlight some of the key points.
There is absolute common agreement in the House about the need to maximise engagement. Nobody is arguing about this. There is absolute agreement in the
House, including from the Minister, who spoke just a minute ago, about the principle of using digital means to carry out activities. There is no doubt about that point either. We are left with one question: can it be established that you can do this in a secure way? As a large number of Members said, there is ample evidence of very important transactions that are done securely. They do not get more important than how you manage your banking; perhaps with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a lot of us use that method. The crucial point I make is that we do very important and serious things through electronic means. I cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of the House, and, indeed, of the Government, to find ways to ballot for industrial action in the same way.
Would the noble Lord not agree that anybody who has an understanding of the situation in the internet world and its security knows that every responsible bank is extremely worried about being able to maintain security? There are current stories of major companies that have had huge losses of information about their customers. I say to the noble Lord that the ballot on the Mayor of London was a little time back. We need to ensure that we have a fresh look at this in the current climate of risks to security.
The noble Lord is absolutely right that cybersecurity is critical. Indeed, I was going to come on to that. It is critical across every aspect of digital technology and use of digital systems. In fact, many security systems in this country are highly dependent on tackling cybersecurity issues. There is no doubt that we need to deal with it. I venture to suggest that, in comparison with those risks and issues, the risks associated with electronic balloting for potential strike action may not be quite as big.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, made a powerful argument about how this issue sits in the wider context of balance and proportionality as the Bill is taken forward. We are applying quite significant thresholds. Have we done everything possible to enable unions to achieve that turnout? Are we acting in a proportionate and balanced way? That is critical. In many ways, the amendment may well save the Government from themselves and a potential successful legal challenge in the future.
I will finish with two points. First, the whole purpose of my amendment is to actively and independently look at issues of security. I am 100% persuaded that we can have sufficiently secure electronic balloting, and, indeed, workplace balloting, which, as has been said, happens now through the CAC. Secondly, the purpose of my amendment is to look at this issue through an independent process. Let us not put it above the principle of thresholds, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said, but if we put these thresholds in place, we should reasonably and independently explore the question and report back to the House.
This is most definitely not a manoeuvre to delay the Bill. In fact, I have put a time limit of two months in which to carry out the work, which should be more than ample to do work of this nature. Therefore, this is not about saying that we have definitive answers—although I personally think we do—but that we should properly and independently test this issue.
My last point goes to the argument made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. Ultimately, this is about fairness. Are we acting in a fair way in the changes we are making, which affect a very important issue in this country: the right to strike? That should be our determination and, if we believe that that is the core of this issue, the amendment is entirely reasonable. I really hope the Minister will think about how we might do this. Given her very constructive commitment to think seriously about this issue, I will of course withdraw the amendment and hope to have further conversations on this issue.
“subject to the agreement of the Certification Officer”, which would obviously be if the system was secure. So I draw the noble Lord’s attention to the fact that the Minister has many different options to choose from, as well as his own very well-drafted, crafted and spoken to amendment. The principle of electronic balloting is at the heart of this debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, makes a very powerful point. I entirely agree that the aim here is to be able to say, by the point at which we introduce these thresholds, that we have given the widest range of choices. That is where we are trying to get to. If there are alternative ways of doing it, I am very open to that conversation. That is why I am willing to withdraw the amendment at this point, and to continue that conversation. It will not be good enough simply to let the issue drift and return to it as and when appropriate. We need to sort it out now, as part of the Bill.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 2 agreed.