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Committee (4th Day)

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 1:15 pm on 25th February 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Donaghy Baroness Donaghy Chair, Information Committee (Lords) 1:15 pm, 25th February 2016

My Lords, I have three amendments in this group and I give my full support to the amendment of my noble friend Lady Wheeler. I believe that Clause 14 is authoritarian and represents the Government’s belief that public sector employers cannot be trusted. I shall concentrate on my Amendment 95A and try, for the sake of time, not to cover ground that has already been covered.

Clause 14 creates regulations that may,

“make consequential provision amending or otherwise modifying contracts of employment or collective agreements”.

We do not know what the finished product will look like when this Bill becomes an Act. We do not know to what extent the regulations will cover important issues of policy—this has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth—or just explanatory detail, but having a clause of this kind allows the Government to change individual employment contracts and to set aside collective bargaining agreements.

These seem to be Henry VIII powers which not only cut across employer/employee relationships and agreements but reduce the public sector to an employment agency for the Government. What lies behind this proposal and how significant is it from the Minister’s point of view? Is she able to argue that this is not a highly centralist proposal? Finally, what does the Minister have in mind when it comes to the phrase,

“amending or otherwise modifying contracts of employment”?

I notice that paragraph 3 of the draft skeleton regulations—it does not get more vague than that—on the prohibition of check-off states that check-off is,

“void in so far as it purports to require the relevant public sector employer to make trade union subscription deductions from wages payable to workers”.

As has been said many times, check-off is a voluntary arrangement entered into by the employer and the employee. What is meant by “purports to require”, as I am not aware of any employer who is required to do this? I am reluctant to help the Government on this, but perhaps the phrasing in the Explanatory Note would be more accurate, as it talks about purporting,

“to give the right to have such deductions made”.

My Amendments 123A and 124A seek to delay implementation for five years. I sincerely hope that this draconian measure about check-off will not go through at all, but if it does, it will take a huge amount of time for trade unions to put their house in order. Those points have been covered very well by other noble Lords, so I will not cover them again.

However, there will be a disproportionate impact on low-paid employees and part-timers, particularly women. I fear that it is taken for granted by the Government that everyone can create monthly direct debits or standing order arrangements with their banks. As has been said, this is not the case. Banks will not be accommodating if someone has a chequered payment history or if pay is intermittent. I refer back to facility time: some members will be able to pay only by cash or cheque, and there will need to be time for trade union representatives to do the physical collection—a point I made at Second Reading. All those problems will take time to solve, which is what I am asking for.

Finally, I ask a question on the implementation of the ban on check-off. There appears to be confusion in the skeleton regulations about the implementation of the ban. In her covering letter of 22 February, the Minister refers to the ban not coming into force,

“until at least 12 months following Royal Assent of the Bill”.

However, the draft regulations suggest that the ban will come into force,

“no sooner than 12 months of being laid in draft form in both Houses”.

Although the final regulations could be laid at the same time as Royal Assent, that is not guaranteed, so the dates could be quite different. Nick Boles has previously talked about implementation,

“from commencement of the provisions on check-off”.—[ Official Report , Commons, Trade Union Bill Committee, 27/10/15; col. 413.]

Will the Government clarify which date they currently support? My amendment asks for a five-year period for trade unions, their members and employers to be able to implement this without detriment. There will still be detriment to employers, of course, because they will not know who the trade union members are. That is still a vital point, even for those who think that trade unions are anathema.

In conclusion, I hope that the Government will back down. They have a marvellous opportunity, in the shape of my noble friend’s amendment, to do that with dignity.