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My Lords, I support the amendments in this group, particularly those in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Balfe and Lord Beecham, to which I have added my name. I will also speak to my own Amendment 97ZA.
With all the troubles that we have in the world today, I wonder—and I suspect the Minister may be in the same place—why on a cold Thursday in February we are seriously debating the removal of check-off from public sector employees. Just as it is very hard for any rational person to comprehend why we would not allow secure electronic and workplace balloting for industrial disputes, it is impossible to see why any fair person would want to remove this very basic service provided to public service employees.
I start with the cost, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, did. There is virtually no cost: that is very important to say. When my then Secretary of State Eric Pickles was keen to pursue this issue, he asked me to go away and find out what the cost was. I, in turn, asked my head of HR. The first response that I received was “zero”—it was literally too small to calculate. Now, as noble Lords will understand, that was not the right answer, so we looked again and came back with what was still, in the scheme of things, a very small, in fact nugatory, sum. Even if there is a cost, as we have already heard, the trade unions have signalled loud and clear that they are more than willing to cover it; indeed, arrangements exist. The cost issue simply does not stand as an argument.
The second argument is that it is outmoded in this age of direct payments. In reality, check-off is just one method of payment—one choice alongside others. I cannot understand why this Government are not in favour of giving people choice. We would not ban people from paying by cash for services if that is what they wanted to do, simply because it was outmoded in this electronic age. If the argument is that it is outmoded, why do we allow—indeed, encourage—payroll deductions for charitable purposes? My amendment today illustrates that point. We encourage it in one situation, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, says, but we say that it is outmoded in another. As far as I am aware, and the Minister may want to confirm this, the Government have no plans to remove payroll deductions for charitable purposes.
The third reason that has been suggested is connectivity with your employer—that this is too connected to the employer. Let us be clear that there is no connection, any more than there is a connection for a payroll deduction for other purposes. It is simply a convenient mechanism of allowing people to pay. Even if a Minister in a particular department were persuaded of the case for this change, it makes absolutely no sense whatever to dictate the same policy across the whole of the public sector. For me, that is just the Government exporting their own irrationality.
The reason why we have this proposal is, in reality, an unspoken one. The Government do not like the public sector unions and they want to make life more difficult for them. Let us be clear: this will make it harder for the unions. But as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, it will make it a lot harder for their members. They will be the real losers as a result of this change. It will not be the senior civil servants in the FDA, those I dealt with, who will be inconvenienced; it will be low-paid, widely distributed staff such as cleaners. They are the ones who will lose out.
I will confess to noble Lords that in the heat of a difficult industrial dispute, the question of removing check-off is often raised by managers. My response when this was raised with me would be, “Let’s sleep on it”, and in the cold light of day it looked like what it was: petty and vindictive. It was about punishment because they had upset us, and it demeaned us as public sector leaders to think of doing it. That is how we felt about it. Whatever frustrations the trade unions brought, they were playing their legitimate role of representing their members. It seems that the Government are not doing the same thing: they have not reflected on this proposal in the cold light of day. Just as it would have demeaned us if we had moved this forward as public sector leaders in local government, so this genuinely demeans the Government. It is a malevolent absurdity: malevolent because it wilfully sets out to cause harm, and absurd because the Government repeatedly seek to defend it with arguments that simply do not bear serious examination.
In the end this is about balanced and fair government, something we should all feel incredibly passionate about. Yesterday we heard a lot about mothers and dress codes. I shall say this to the Minister: I am wearing a suit, my tie is straight and I will be more than happy to sing the national anthem, or at least the first verse, if the Government will think again about this proposal.