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Committee (1st Day)

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 8th February 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Prosser Baroness Prosser Labour 4:45 pm, 8th February 2016

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.