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Trade Union Bill - Third Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 25th April 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:30 pm, 25th April 2016

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the amendments, each of which we are pleased to support. In doing so, I recognise the movement that the Government have made—particularly from “partly” to “mainly”.

We should, however—the Minister is right to smile—read the amendments on the scope of facility time and check-off restrictions in the Bill in the context of the helpful, albeit slightly belated, letter that I received from him late on Friday, which I imagine is also in the Library, and which outlines which organisations will be caught by the provisions. In the light of that 15-page draft, a skeleton regulation which would give effect to the mandatory reporting on facility time and the restriction of an employer’s freedom to operate check-off, I fear that I have seven questions for the Minister.

First, have the 255 bodies listed in the draft regulations, which are about to find themselves caught by them, been consulted? Secondly, why is the Legal Services Board on the list? It does not get government money, being funded by a levy on lawyers, and should therefore be excluded, alongside the Gambling Commission, by virtue of the third of the Government’s exclusions, as set out at the top of the second page of the Minister’s letter of Friday 22 April. When this House accepted the Legal Services Act 2007, it felt it important that the Legal Services Board should be independent of government for international as well as domestic reasons. Its inclusion in a list of bodies, restricting its managerial freedom, could be of concern.

Thirdly, the list refers to the proprietor of an academy under the 2010 Act. Given that the Government are now threatening that all schools should become academies, despite the resistance of many Conservative MPs, to say nothing of that of head teachers, governors and parents, particularly of primary schools, will the Minister clarify whether, should that White Paper find its way into the Queen’s Speech, any forced new academies would be covered by this provision?

Fourthly, with regard to charities—and I thank the Minister for our discussions on this and for what he said today—would housing associations be covered under his definition? The Minister made what appears to be a useful statement today and in his letter: it is not the Government’s intention to include organisations which the general public would consider to be charities—such as Oxfam or others doing valuable charitable work funded by the public purse—within the scope of the Bill. However, the letter also states that the “starting point for scope on public bodies captured remains those public authorities in the Freedom of Information Act”.

Given the reports last year that Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Officer Minister, was considering extending freedom of information into the charitable sector, will the Minister confirm that the Government have dropped that idea or at the least confirm that even if it were to be resurrected, the Government would still exclude charities of the sort he described from these facility time and check-off provisions? The Minister has kindly had discussions with us about charities, but there remain problems within the sector and concern about the definition. Will he therefore look again, as we asked before, and give some comfort by using words to define the exclusion, such as: “charities, regardless of their funding arrangements, which are independent organisations that have satisfied the public benefit test and are regulated by the Charity Commission”. This would not cover the exempt charities, such as universities, which are regulated by another body. That would give comfort, should freedom of information be extended in a way that has not been covered by what the Minister said today.

Fifthly the breadth of the scope on facility time, in particular the inclusion of public broadcasters, including the BBC, and arts bodies, such as the British Museum and the Tate, continues to concern us. What is the justification for intervening in such beacons of independent and artistic freedom? The Minister no doubt saw the amazing tribute to Shakespeare from Stratford on Saturday night. It must have involved lots of discussions of safety, overtime, copyright and performance rights. Is he content these would all need documenting before the show could go on?

Sixthly, with regard to the detail that employers will have to document on facility time, we remain concerned about both the onerous—indeed, “burdensome” is the word—amount of red tape and the bureaucracy involved, as well as about how much information employers will have to demand of union reps about how they spend their time, often encroaching on to confidential or contentious matters. For example, the draft skeleton regulations require employers to provide a breakdown of the proportion of facility time spent on different union duties. They list them: health and safety, redundancies, TUPE, collective bargaining, training, and representation in grievances and disciplinary hearings. This means union reps having to disclose that to employers, but those amounts of time will vary on a weekly basis, and in many workplaces it will be difficult for employers to decide what counts as time spent on collective bargaining as opposed to time spent on redundancy, on TUPE or on training, because these activities often take place at the same time, including when a lay official meets with a full-time union official or the employer to discuss a basket of issues.

Seventhly—there are only seven questions—under a different Bill, with which the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, is familiar, the exit payment cap was feared to cover Magnox, which seemed to be defined as being in the public sector. However, over the weekend I saw an email from the Office for National Statistics that evidenced ongoing discussions over whether that is the case. The outcome of those discussions of course has considerable implications for its long-standing and older employees. Given those sorts of issues, is the Minister confident that such complications will not arise in the questions over scope in this Bill?

The House will know that no employer has sought this interference with its right to manage, and that many are concerned about the red tape and cost that it entails, which makes us think that the Bill’s real aim is to make union organisation harder. But if it is to happen, we urge the Government to have constructive debates with the charity sector, affected employers and trade unions, and to allow each of these enough time to construct and bed down the necessary form-filling processes. A lot of work will be involved, and it needs to be undertaken without ridiculous haste if it is to be effective, efficient and give value for money.