Trade Union Bill - Commons Amendments

– in the House of Lords at 4:35 pm on 3rd May 2016.

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Motion A

Moved by Baroness Neville-Rolfe

That this House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 2A and 2B.

2: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—“Electronic ballotingProvision for electronic balloting: review and piloting scheme(1) The Secretary of State shall commission an independent review, the report of which shall be laid before each House of Parliament, on the delivery of secure methods of electronic balloting for the purpose of ballots held under section 226 of the 1992 Act (requirement of ballot before action by trade union).(2) The use of pilot schemes shall be permitted to inform the design and implementation of electronic balloting before it is rolled out across union strike ballots.(3) The Secretary of State must consider the report and publish and lay before each House of Parliament a strategy for the rollout of secure electronic balloting.(4) For the purpose of preparing the strategy under subsection (3), the Secretary of State must consult relevant organisations including professionals from expert associations to seek their advice and recommendations.(5) The review under subsection (1) shall be commissioned within 6 months of the passing of this Act.”Commons Agreement and Amendments to the Lords AmendmentThe Commons agree with Lords Amendment No. 2 and do propose Amendments 2A and 2B thereto—

2A: Line 13, leave out from “Parliament” to end of line 14 and insert “his or her response to it”

2B: Line 15, leave out “strategy” and insert “response”

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My Lords, it is a pleasure to return to the Trade Union Bill, which I believe was much improved as a result of the expertise and attention to detail shown in this House. We have three groups before us today on electronic balloting, trade union political fund opt-in and facility time, following changes made in the other place to the amendments made after votes here in the Lords.

We all agree that trade unions have an important role to play in the workplace. That includes helping to resolve workplace disputes without strikes, improving health and safety and encouraging skills development. We have already secured agreement in both Houses to the key aspects of this legislation, including ballot thresholds and mandates, reform of picketing and the Certification Officer. Following further discussions and debate in the other place, we are here today to consider the final elements of the Bill.

I turn first to electronic balloting. We have always been open to the principle but we have reservations, which I described in detail on Report, about its safety and security. I appreciate that some do not share my concerns and are satisfied that these issues can be easily resolved. That is why the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, with widespread support across the House, proposed that an independent review be commissioned, after which e-balloting would be introduced. There have of course already been a number of reviews such as those by Electoral Reform Services, Webroots Democracy and the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. These have made encouraging comments about a move to electronic ballots but none has provided assurance on managing the risks. That is why we can see the merit in looking at the issues further and will be commissioning an independent review to do so.

The review will enable us to take a properly informed decision based on an assessment of the latest technology, made specifically in the context of electronic voting for industrial action ballots. It will take us closer to resolving the question of how both security and confidentiality can be preserved. This is important because it should enable us to get to the very heart of the matter. I am pleased that the Government have now agreed to accept your Lordships’ amendment for an independent review of e-balloting, with one important change: to replace the requirement to,

“consider the report and publish and lay before each House … a strategy for the rollout of secure electronic balloting”, following the review, with a requirement for the Government to publish our response to the review. There is a simple and important reason for that change. We believe that the wording voted on in this House would prejudge the outcome of the review and irrevocably commit the Secretary of State to press ahead irrespective of the review’s findings. However, we have listened carefully to the strength of feeling in both Houses. We can see the merits of electronic voting being made available for industrial action ballots once the problems are addressed, and this review will enable us to make crucial progress. We already have the powers to introduce such ballots in Section 54 of the Employment Relations Act 2004.

The amendment before your Lordships today, supported by the other place, reflects the Government’s acceptance of the principle of electronic balloting while ensuring that we proceed prudently and on the basis of evidence. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, I thank the Minister; I appreciate that the Government have moved substantially on this issue since we last debated it. I will try to encourage her to be a little more positive, because the fact is that the Government have publicly declared in favour of a review, which is important. It is important that she reassure the House that all interested parties will be publicly consulted in that review and will have the opportunity to put their case and the evidence in an open and transparent way. I hope this will include not only balloting agencies but the trade unions themselves and the TUC, which obviously have a wealth of experience. It may even be an opportunity for the Conservative Party to explain how well it gets on with electronic balloting, which it has used in the past. I therefore hope that the Minister will be able to give that commitment that evidence will be taken across the board.

I also noted the comments by Nick Boles in the other place about the pilots running as part of the review. I hope the Minister will be able to give the independent review a freer hand that will enable it to say, “Well, yes, we have evidence, but we want to test it”. That is important, because whatever the review’s conclusions, it matters that people have confidence in it. That is why all noble Lords were committed to the idea of a trial or pilots—to ensure that the review could assess its effectiveness.

Of course, no balloting process is completely secure, as we know from our own parliamentary system. However, I am fairly confident that the balloting agencies will be able to ensure that there is a strong case. We must not forget the reasons for this. It is about ensuring democracy, and if the Government are genuinely concerned about the rate of participation in elections—or, primarily, in industrial action ballots, where the thresholds have been put in place—it is their duty to ensure that all measures are taken to maximise this. Views were expressed across the House that this independent review should take place as speedily as possible and that the Government should consider fully its conclusions. I note what the Minister says but I hope that once that review is published, the Government will give proper consideration to its conclusions.

Photo of The Earl of Courtown The Earl of Courtown Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, was not in the Chamber until well after the Minister had started speaking. I do not know whether the House feels that he should be allowed to speak.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether I am right in thinking that there has been some change in the order of business? I was under the impression that there would now be an Urgent Question on health. I myself arrived late in the Chamber, and that ought to be taken into account.

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench

I am very grateful to the House for giving me the opportunity to speak. I was going to convey my apologies for lateness for the exact reason given by the noble Lord, Lord King—I had a different understanding of the timetable. All I can say is that I am learning fast.

I wholeheartedly welcome the movement on electronic balloting, and the Minister will know how passionately I feel about this. The fact is that it is both a secure and effective system for testing the opinion of different groups. It has been used on many occasions by many organisations for very important votes, and I believe passionately that it should be made available to the unions, particularly where we have set thresholds that must be met before they can take industrial action.

I am concerned that we should go into this not only with the appropriate level of prudence but with an open mind, being willing to engage in a constructive review, looking at the issues in the round, testing the security issues and, crucially, testing whether the electronic balloting system is as secure as or more secure than postal balloting. There is no such thing as an entirely secure system. This is about relative security, and that is what needs to be tested here.

I believe strongly that we should not need to wait 20 years for the review to be implemented, and I hope the Minister will assure me that that is not the mindset of those who will be asked to undertake it. I hope they will undertake it constructively and positively, with a genuine desire to advance the agenda of electronic balloting.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 4:45 pm, 3rd May 2016

My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, has just said. The Minister has repeated today that the Government are not opposed to electronic balloting in principle; they are concerned about the technicalities. I therefore hope that the Minister can tell the House that, if the independent review produces a positive response on the technicalities and the detail, the Government will be eager to implement the findings.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister, as I do Mr Nick Boles for the very constructive part he played in another place. I just ask my noble friend to say something about the timescale.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may add to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, but, first, I also add my apologies for not being here when the Minister made her contribution. However, I think that some of us are entitled to an apology from whoever set out the business for today, as it has been taken in an order different from what we were previously advised.

I obviously apologise if my noble friend has already covered this matter clearly but I was very struck by the statement from the Minister, Mr Nick Boles, in response to a contribution from Mr David Davis, who has taken a keen interest in this matter. Mr Davis asked what assurance could be given about the outcome of a positive review. The Minister replied:

“I have made it clear that we have no objection in principle to e-balloting. If the research suggests that it is safe to embrace, we will proceed with it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/4/16; col. 1476.]

Interestingly, there was then considerable discussion about the Minister’s career prospects—whether it meant anything or whether it was merely the reflection of a Minister who was here today and gone tomorrow. He made it quite clear that he had made that statement on behalf of the Government and, regardless of who succeeded him, it was the Government’s position. It is to the Government’s credit that they recognise the validity of this argument. It is sensible to have a review and if it is positive, obviously there will be benefits in introducing it.

Photo of Lord Stoneham of Droxford Lord Stoneham of Droxford Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I, too, must apologise for being a little late. I was brought up on the good trade union tradition that an agreement on procedure is an agreement, although clearly it was not this afternoon.

I want to add a couple of comments to the important speeches that we have already heard—particularly those from the Cross Benches—and to what the noble Lord, Lord King, said. We are seeking three things. The first is that the unions should be consulted as part of this review. Secondly, we would like to see some form of pilot as part of the review, bearing in mind that the Electoral Reform Services has conducted in the past year 2,000 polls and covered 1 million votes. There is a lot of experience out there, so this review does not actually need a lot of time. Therefore, our third requirement is that there should be some form of deadline. We are concerned that this will be heading for the long grass otherwise. The whole concept of electronic balloting is very important to the future of trade union democracy, not only for ballots for industrial action, but ballots for union leadership. Postal ballots were seen 20 or 30 years ago as essential reform, but now that turnouts in postal ballots are disappointingly low, we have to look at alternative methods of making such ballots more representative. Electronic balloting, as we have discussed in this Chamber, is now the next important reform. I hope the Government will exercise this review quickly and expediently and get a positive response.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My Lords, I believe that we have made significant progress today, despite the confusion over the timing of the Statement. The review will help to assess the rigour of the latest technology and address concerns about security, confidentiality and intimidation. It will allow us to consider again the case for e-balloting and ensure that we are making the right decision about whether to allow this method for conducting trade union ballots. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said about the value of increasing participation through e-balloting and the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Kerslake and Lord Pannick, about its value.

Let me first address the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, about pilot schemes. Pilots are always a good thing, and it is a pity they are not deployed more generally in public policy. How and when you use them in this area is not something that can be decided today. However, we have specifically mentioned them in the Bill and I appreciate from exchanges that we have had, including with the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, that they are important.

I note the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about involving interested parties in the review, and in particular trade unions and the Trades Union Congress. This will of course be an independent review, and it will be for the chair to determine how best to conduct it. However, to my mind, it would make sense to involve trade unions, and indeed other relevant experts, and I am sure that he or she will come to the same view. Union input is very important, and in deciding how to set up the review we obviously need to avoid conflicts of interest.

My noble friend Lord King rightly quoted my honourable friend Nick Boles, who has done so much to progress this legislation, and the Government’s intentions, as set out recently. I cannot really add to that, but a number of noble Lords have asked about timing. I am pleased to provide reassurance that the review will be acted upon in due course and without delay.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend the Minister. We did of course have extensive debates about the merits of this at an earlier stage of the Bill. Could she tell the House when and why the Government changed their mind on this matter?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My Lords, we discussed e-balloting in this House in Committee and at Report. There was a very widespread view that we should try to find a way forward on e-balloting. It is fair to say that we have been working since then to try to do just that. The Bill went back to the other place with amendments made by this House, most of which were accepted, and it was decided by the Government that we should bring forward a review of e-balloting in exactly the form that I have described today. I welcome that and welcome the progress that that has meant we are able to make on this Bill.

I shall not delay your Lordships long on this issue. I am very interested in all aspects of the advance of digitalisation—my friends know that—so I look forward to seeing the results of the review of e-balloting that we are agreeing today.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Could my noble friend please answer the question that I asked about timescale? She used the expression “in due course” et cetera, but it would be helpful to know when this review will commence, how long it will last and when we will therefore be in a position to draw conclusions from it.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I can repeat that we will act in due course and without delay. Those words were advised. Of course, I am not able to answer in detail on the exact timetable today, but I hope that noble Lords will feel that the direction of travel is right and that this amendment, which builds largely on the amendment passed in this House, is what we need and will agree that we should proceed with it.

Motion A agreed.

Motion B

Moved by Baroness Neville-Rolfe

That this House do not insist on its Amendments 7 and 8 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 7A, 7B, 7C, 7D, 7E and 7F.

7: Clause 10, page 5, line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 36 on page 6 and insert—“(1) A person who, after the transition period, joins a trade union that has a political fund at the time the person joins shall, on the trade union membership form (whether paper or electronic), be asked whether or not the person wishes to contribute to the political fund, and informed that the decision shall not affect any other aspects of the person’s membership.(2) It shall be unlawful to require a person who joins a trade union after the transition period to make a contribution to any political fund of that trade union if the person has not given to the trade union notice—(a) on the membership form (whether paper or electronic), or(b) in accordance with subsection (6), of the person’s willingness to contribute to that fund.(3) It shall be unlawful for any trade union which does not have in force a political resolution under section 73 (political resolution) at the end of the transition period, but which subsequently passes a political resolution under that section, to require a member of the trade union to make a contribution to the political fund if the member has not given notice to the trade union in accordance with subsection (6) of the member’s willingness to contribute to that fund.(4) A member of a trade union who contributes to a political fund but wishes to cease contributing to that political fund shall give notice to that effect to the trade union in accordance with subsection (6).(5) A member of a trade union who gives notice under subsection (4) shall, after the end of the period of one month beginning with the day on which it is given, no longer be required to contribute to the political fund.(6) Notice under subsection (2), (3) or (4) may be given to a trade union by being delivered—(a) to the head office of the trade union, or(b) to a branch office of the trade union,in person, by any authorised agent, by post, or by electronic means.(7) The Certification Officer shall, within six months of section 10 of the Trade Union Act 2016 coming into force, issue a code of practice which must set out the minimum level of communications which trade unions with political funds must have every year with political fund contributors about their right to cease contributing to the political fund.(8) The Certification Officer must monitor the compliance of trade unions with political funds with the code of practice issued under subsection (7), and shall in their annual report under section 258 (annual report and accounts) set out their findings.(9) In this Act “contributor”, in relation to the political fund of a trade union, means a member who makes a contribution to the political fund and has not given notice to the trade union under subsection (4).(10) In this section “the transition period” means the period to be specified by the Secretary of State in regulations made by statutory instrument following consultation with the Certification Officer and all trade unions which have a political fund.(11) The period to be specified by the Secretary of State under subsection (10) shall be no less than 12 months, and shall start on the day on which section 10 of the Trade Union Act 2016 comes into force.(12) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (10) may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”

8: Page 7, line 7, leave out subsections (3) to (5)

Commons Disagreement and Amendments in lieu

The Commons disagree with Lords Amendments No. 7 and 8, but do propose Amendments 7A, 7B, 7C, 7D, 7E and 7F in lieu—

7A: Page 5, line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 36 on page 6 and insert— “(1) It is unlawful to require a member of a trade union to make a contribution to the political fund of a trade union if—(a) the member has not given to the union notice of the member’s willingness to contribute to that fund (an “opt-in notice”); or(b) an opt-in notice given by the member has been withdrawn in accordance with subsection (2).(2) A member of a trade union who has given an opt-in notice may withdraw that notice by giving notice to the union (a “withdrawal notice”).(3) A withdrawal notice takes effect at the end of the period of one month beginning with the day on which it is given.(4) A member of a trade union may give an opt-in notice or a withdrawal notice—(a) by delivering it (either personally or by an authorised agent or by post) at the head office or a branch office of the union;(b) by sending it by e-mail to an address that the union has told its members can be used for sending such notices;(c) by completing an electronic form provided by the union which sets out the notice, and sending it to the union by electronic means in accordance with instructions given by the union; or(d) by such other electronic means as may be prescribed.(5) In this Act “contributor”, in relation to the political fund of a trade union, means a member who has given to the union an opt-in notice that has not been withdrawn.””

7B: Page 6, line 36, at end insert— “(1A) After that section insert—“84A Information to members about contributing to political fund(1) A trade union shall take all reasonable steps to secure that, not later than the end of the period of eight weeks beginning with the day on which the annual return of the union is sent to the Certification Officer, all the members of the union are notified of their right to give a withdrawal notice under section 84(2).(2) The notification may be given —(a) by sending individual copies of it to members; or(b) by any other means (whether by including the notification in a publication of the union or otherwise) which it is the practice of the union to use when information of general interest to all its members needs to be provided to them;and, in particular, the notification may be included with the statement required to be given by section 32A.(3) A trade union shall send to the Certification Officer a copy of the notification which is provided to its members in pursuance of this section as soon as is reasonably practicable after it is so provided.(4) Where the same form of notification is not provided to all the members of a trade union, the union shall send to the Certification Officer in accordance with subsection (3) a copy of each form of notification provided to any of them.(5) Where the Certification Officer is satisfied that a trade union has failed to comply with a requirement of this section, the Officer may make such order for remedying the failure as he thinks just under the circumstances.(6) Before deciding the matter the Certification Officer—(a) may make such enquiries as the Officer thinks fit;(b) must give the union, and any member of the union who made a complaint to the Officer regarding the matter, an opportunity to make written representations; and(c) may give the union, and any such member as is mentioned in paragraph (b), an opportunity to make oral representations.”

7C: Page 7, line 6, at end insert—“(2A) In section 82 of the 1992 Act (rules as to political fund), in subsection (1), for the word “and” at the end of paragraph (c) substitute— “(ca) that, if the union has a political fund, any form (including an electronic form) that a person has to complete in order to become a member of the union shall include—(i) a statement to the effect that the person may opt to be a contributor to the fund, and(ii) a statement setting out the effect of paragraph (c); and”

7D: Page 7, line 7, leave out subsections (3) to (5) and insert—“(3) The amendments made by subsections (1) to (2A) apply only after the end of the transition period, and only to a person—(a) who after the end of that period joins a trade union that has a political fund, or(b) who is a member of a trade union that has a political fund but did not have one immediately before the end of that period.(4) In subsection (3) “the transition period” means a period of not less than 12 months, starting on the day on which this section comes into force, specified by the Secretary of State in regulations made by statutory instrument.(5) Before making regulations under subsection (4) the Secretary of State must consult—(a) the Certification Officer, and(b) all trade unions that have a political fund.(6) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (4) may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”

7E: Page 26, line 27, at end insert—“( ) section 84A(5) (order on failure by union to provide required information to members about contributing to political fund);”

7F: Page 30, line 12, leave out paragraph 7

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My Lords, we have debated at length the principle of how union members exercise their choice to opt either in or out of a political fund. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the wider Select Committee for their deliberations on this complex issue. They were both careful and wise, and extraordinarily rapid because of what looked like an impossible five-week deadline.

I extend thanks in particular to my noble friends Lord Sherbourne, Lord De Mauley, Lord Robathan and Lord Callanan, who gave up their time to help the committee find a way forward on these very important matters and ensure that the principle of union members having a transparent and active choice to opt in was supported.

The Government have given careful consideration to the recommendations of the Select Committee and to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, which followed the majority view that opt-in should apply only to new members. We tabled an amendment in the other place, but concerns were expressed by a number of colleagues from both Benches in both Houses.

It was important to progress matters and get this Bill through the House and on to the statute book, and the Government subsequently tabled a new amendment, now before your Lordships following its acceptance by the other place, which like the original amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, reflects the recommendations of the Select Committee on opting in.

The amendment corrects some legally defective drafting and, instead of the Certification Officer being required to issue a code of practice, places a statutory obligation directly on unions to provide an annual reminder to those new members who have opted in to the political fund. It is not usual for the Certification Officer to be involved with communications between unions and their members, and it provides more certainty to have this requirement in the Bill.

In the interests of finalising this important Bill for Royal Assent, I hope that noble Lords will support the amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Burns Lord Burns Crossbench

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to thank the Minister for her statement and the amendments, and I hope that this will be the end of what has been the controversial issue of trade union political funds. As the Minister said, today’s proposals leave intact the substance of the amendment which was passed so comprehensively by your Lordships’ House. Noble Lords will recall that the amendment was designed to put into legislation the majority recommendations of the Select Committee on Trade Union Political Funds and Political Party Funding, which I had the honour to chair. I remind noble Lords that most of the recommendations reflected the unanimous view of the committee, although there was a difference of opinion about the treatment of existing members of unions with political funds.

In essence, after a transitional period of at least 12 months, all new members will be required to pay into political funds only if they have actively opted in. They will be reminded annually of their right to opt out. Opting in or out will be allowed electronically, there will be no renewal requirement every five years, and the requirement to opt in will not apply to existing members.

Personally, I regard this as a very satisfactory conclusion. In my view, it is consistent with the Government’s manifesto commitment by establishing the principle of opt-in, which I believe to be the correct approach. Over time, an increasing proportion of union members will have opted into paying political funds. It avoids the punitive and expensive requirement of asking those members who have opted in to renew their decision every five years, for which I cannot find a precedent. It avoids the dangerous path of counting as opt-outs existing members who do not answer the request to make an active choice between opting in and opting out, and it of course avoids the potentially significant reduction in the funds available to the Labour Party. So far, so good.

However, in the spirit of this compromise, I urge trade unions with political funds to go further than the measures in the Bill and ensure that all members of political funds, both new and existing, are reminded each year of their right to opt out if they wish. In addition, I would like to see the unions routinely ask existing members who have not made an active choice between opt-in and opt-out to do so, with the aim of increasing over time the number of members who have exercised an explicit choice. The figures that we have suggest a turnover rate in unions with political funds of about 15% a year. If that turnover is spread evenly across the membership, that could mean that after five years around half the members of political funds will have exercised a choice to opt in or opt out. In addition, if each year 10% of existing members who had not made an explicit choice were persuaded to make a choice, the figure could be significantly higher.

It would be helpful from my perspective if, in the future, unions publish annual statistics of the proportion of members who have opted in. That need not be unduly burdensome, and in the long run it would put the trade unions into a much stronger position if this issue were to arise again.

The other issue that the committee dealt with was that of political funding. During the short life of the Select Committee, I learned a great deal about the problems of party funding and along with many noble Lords hope that there will be progress on this front in line with the manifesto commitments. But that will have to wait for another day. As I have said, I am enormously grateful to the Minister, who has shown great patience on this issue, and am content with the outcome.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 5:00 pm, 3rd May 2016

In the noble Lord’s discussions with the Government about his amendment, at what stage was he told that the Government had changed their position? Was there a stage before that?

Photo of Lord Burns Lord Burns Crossbench

Mr Nick Boles explained to the other place one day last week that he and I met last Monday evening and had a discussion. He put a proposal to me that I thought was rather unsatisfactory and fell somewhat short not only of the majority recommendation of the Select Committee but of the minority view. I explained that from my perspective it did not go far enough and that there would have to be further stages between the two Houses. Then I was subsequently told on Tuesday evening, the following day, that the revised proposal was being set down.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative

My Lords, I rise with some disappointment to speak on these amendments, but I start by paying tribute to my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe because throughout she has been exemplary in her courtesy and assistance. I know from past experience that sometimes as a Minister you hold to a line and then suddenly a hole appears in front of you into which you drop. I fear that she may be feeling slightly like that, and our honourable friend Mr Boles may feel the same.

I am disappointed not because this is a grand old Duke of York moment, although in the committee we were indeed marched up to the top of the hill, but because this is the wrong decision. The Bill that came to the House of Lords was frankly not a good Bill. There were three issues that I particularly seized on. One was electronic balloting and the unnecessary bureaucracy involved in the Bill—the need to write to people and people only being able to communicate by writing, which was nonsensical. The second was that there was just not enough time to do it in a matter of months. Any large organisation needs time to contact all its members. I am glad to see that, as a result of our deliberations, there will now be a 12-month window for transition. The third reason was that having to review the decision every five years was punitive, as the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who ably chaired the committee, has described it. Others in this Chamber will know better than I, but I wonder whether the Bill was stitched together by some special adviser who was being paid too much; some teenage scribbler who should, perhaps, have been given greater and wiser direction.

There were two reasons for my disappointment. First, this was a commitment in our manifesto, which specifically said that we would,

“ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions”, and not just for new members. The second reason is the very important issue of principle. If the principle is that people should opt in, rather than out, then that principle is right—would any noble Lord like to disagree with that? As we heard in our committee, presumed consent is no longer acceptable in financial services. In our earlier discussions on the Bank of England and Financial Services Bill, the Opposition were speaking ably and rightly about consumer protection. Why should trade unionists not have the same consumer protection as anybody else and not have to opt in rather than out?

These two reasons leave me gravely disappointed. I am sure it is not the case, but there is a hint that a deal may have been cut behind closed doors, which does not reflect well on this Government. They should have stuck by their principles and by the principle which I have mentioned. Politicians are much criticised for not keeping their promises and for inconsistency. By allowing these amendments to go forward, the Government have not kept their manifesto promise and have been inconsistent, and it pains me to say that.

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform)

My Lords, I too served on the Select Committee so ably led by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and I am delighted to follow on from—and endorse—what he has said this afternoon. As one of the co-signatories, from every part of the House, for his amendment on Report, I warmly welcome what the Government have now decided to do. They have, albeit at the very last minute, recognised the validity of what the Select Committee recommended and the very strong support for it in all parts of this House. I note again that the Minister herself has referred to the committee as “careful” and “wise”. I take comfort from that description. I am not sure that she would have said it earlier on, but she has said it now.

It is also very gratifying that, when its work was being examined in the other place last Wednesday, there were also very considerable tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the rest of the Select Committee. There was unanimous praise and support from Members on all sides. Not only the Minister, Nick Boles, but representatives of the opposition parties paid tribute to the work that was done at—as has been acknowledged—considerable speed and were united in expressing agreement with our broad conclusions. As the original proposer of this way to achieve some non-partisan, cross-party, independent scrutiny of this highly controversial part of the Bill, I took particular pleasure from that endorsement as I listened to the Commons debate. MPs on all sides made reference to the Select Committee’s wider recommendations, to which the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has referred, on the question of party funding reform. In paragraph 131, the committee quoted the double promise in the 2015 Conservative manifesto:

“In the next Parliament, we will legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for subscriptions to political parties”.

And, it goes on, immediately:

“We will continue to seek agreement on a comprehensive package of party funding reform”.

I note what the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, said about manifesto promises, and I hope he endorses that promise with equal sincerity and strength.

In paragraph 138 of the report, the committee recommended to the House and the Government that:

“Whether or not clause 10 is enacted, in whatever form, the political parties should live up to their manifesto commitments and make a renewed and urgent effort to seek a comprehensive agreement on party funding reform. We urge the Government to take a decisive lead and convene talks itself, rather than waiting for them to emerge”.

This is where this business is now unfinished and where we must expect further explicit announcements from Ministers. Ministers simply cannot pretend that this issue is unimportant. That firm recommendation was supported unanimously in the Select Committee with forthright endorsement by all four Conservative members.

Members on all sides of your Lordships’ House have joined the Select Committee in highlighting public concern about the dominance of big money in British politics. The Select Committee took a lot of evidence on that point. Who can say that the public are wrong to be suspicious of favoured access, favoured influence and favoured patronage? It is often said, “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. Only this weekend, we have had a vivid reminder of how damaging to public confidence in our democracy this can be. The Conservative Party’s determination to inflame people’s fear, hatred and greed in the London mayoral election has been all too obvious. Powerful financial interests are clearly scared. I noticed in particular the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who rightly asked whether this disgraceful campaign really represents the true motives of the candidate. Whether or not it does, she was brave and right to call her party out on this deplorable campaign.

If our politics are to become more palatable to her and to the public, removing big money is an essential prerequisite. The changes we are making to the Bill this afternoon provide an opportunity to do just that if the Government will, as the committee unanimously recommended, once again institute serious cross-party talks and bring a Bill back to Parliament. There is a huge body of work on this essential element of reform, and it is now for the parties to live up to their promises about implementing a fair package. If Ministers today cannot give a complete and authoritative response to this crucial part of the Select Committee’s report, the House will surely expect to be told who will respond and when.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Conservative

My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Robathan in expressing my disappointment at the Government’s concessions on this amendment because the principle of opt-in was at the core of the Bill. We had robust discussions in the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning that in her opening speech, but all four of the Conservative members of that committee were very keen to make sure that existing members were included as part of the opt-in process, not the least because this is a manifesto commitment. It was a badly worded manifesto commitment, but as Ministers in this House and in the other place have made clear, it was a firm manifesto commitment on which they were not going to compromise, right up until last week.

I served in the European Parliament for 15 years, and I expected Ministers to compromise to a certain degree on this. In the European Parliament, compromise is the spirit of the day as there are many parties from many different countries. I have spent many a happy, and sometimes not so happy, hour negotiating until the small hours of the morning on various Bills and other legislation. Of course you have to give ground, and I was perfectly prepared to see the Government give ground on the transition period and the length of the transitional measures. That was to be expected, but to see the whole thing junked completely is extremely disappointing because it still leaves millions of workers in this country contributing to political parties and political causes about which they have never been asked or consulted. That is the principle that we should be upholding.

My concern is not so much that the Government have climbed down on this. I am disappointed, but I could have accepted that as part of the normal parliamentary discourse. My bigger concern is the reason for the Government’s climb-down. I do not necessarily believe everything that I read in the media, but if media reports are to be believed the reason for this climb-down is part of a deal with the trade unions for financial and political support for the remain campaign in the EU referendum. I do not know whether that is true, but if it is it is disappointing and regrettable. We are well used to the party opposite doing deals with the trade unions on legislative changes in return for political donations. I really hope that the Government are not doing the same in this instance. It is another demonstration, if one were needed, of the hideous power of the EU to subvert our democratic process.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Chair, EU Internal Market Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Internal Market Sub-Committee 5:15 pm, 3rd May 2016

My Lords, I had not intended to participate in the debate. I thought that it was going to go through smoothly and that a rather unfortunate period of legislation would have passed relatively quietly before the end of this parliamentary session. However, my former colleagues on the Select Committee provoked me to intervene.

As the Minister pointed out, this is a compromise. All compromises are, by their nature, difficult for the parties. It is clear from the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Robathan and Lord Callanan, that it is difficult for the hawks in the Conservative Party, who landed us with this proposition in the first place—but it is also difficult for the trade unions. There is more administration and considerable cost involved in this, and a difficult situation in the long run. But it is also a difficult compromise for the body politic, because of the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—one of my other colleagues on the Select Committee—put forward.

I remind the House that we have spent hours on the issue of how trade unions deal with political contributions, but other organisations and extremely rich individuals make contributions. None of those organisations is required, like the Bill still requires trade unions, to have a separate political fund in the first place; to report precisely on how it uses and expends its political money; to give each of its members the possibility of an opt-out; and now to require future members to opt in rather than to opt out. In no other organisation in this land are those restraints put on political expenditure or involvement.

As was revealed in the Select Committee report, on the basis of figures given to us by the Electoral Commission, in the five years to 2015 the trade unions gave £64 million, the vast majority of it to the Labour Party. However, other organisations in this land gave £80 million—to, admittedly, a variety of parties, but predominantly and overwhelmingly to the Conservative Party. Yet none of those organisations was affected by previous legislation requiring separate political funds or opting out, or by new legislation requiring more detailed controls and more detailed reporting.

This relates to the points that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, raised. If we are to come up with a democratic balance that is acceptable for a long-running constitutional settlement of this issue, we have to look at political funding in the round. As he said, the drafters of the Conservative Party manifesto recognised that and made a commitment that way. That has conveniently been dropped. Whatever the motivation for the compromise here—I do not particularly wish to go into that; it is possibly a matter for private grief within the Conservative Party—there is no reason now for the Conservative Government not to open those talks on political funding in the long run by organisations, individuals and the political parties themselves. That way we may get a balance in political funding that accords with democratic principles and is acceptable to the majority of the people. Without that, and despite this compromise, which I support, we will still have a seriously unbalanced situation once the Bill passes.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I think we have to reflect, briefly, upon what has happened. We had a Motion, carried by a large majority, that the Select Committee should be established. I did not support it. I explained during the debate that I felt that the Bill was seriously impaired and that there was much unfairness in it, but I questioned whether a committee could, in the very short timescale that my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe has referred to today, could produce a really good, definitive report. Thanks to the hard work of colleagues from all parts of the House and expert chairmanship, to which they all testified, by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, the deadline was met and a report was produced. It was signed up to by all the members of the committee—although, in the final, conclusive paragraph there was, it was explained, a divergence of opinion.

The noble Lord, Lord Burns, decided to encapsulate that recommendation in the amendment which he moved on Report in your Lordships’ House. He moved the amendment with great skill and was supported by Members from other political parties as well as Members on the Cross Benches. My noble friend Lord Balfe and I voted enthusiastically for him. The names of a number of leading members of the Conservative Party will not be found in the Division list—I went through it carefully—because they felt that they could not oppose the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. It was carried by a large majority. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, explained that when he came to the negotiations at the beginning of last week, what was on offer not only did not meet his amendment but did not even meet the amendment to which my Conservative friends had signed up—in paragraph B, I think it was—so further negotiations were held.

What happened was very simply this. The parliamentary Session is coming to an end. The State Opening of Parliament has already been designated for 18 May—a fortnight tomorrow. So what was to happen? My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe and Mr Boles in another place decided that half a loaf was indeed better than no bread: that it would be far better to have a Bill that had widespread support—albeit that some of it is reluctant support. I myself do not think that this is the greatest Bill that the Government have placed before this House. Nevertheless, it is now, as far as one-nation Conservatives are concerned, a fairer, more decent and more equitable Bill, and one that has within it some recognition of the underlying dichotomy of party funding. Because the Bill in its original state—and I used the words “unfairness” and “choice” many times in contributing to earlier debates—whether by accident or design, was penalising one of the great parties of state and not the others.

I believe that it is important that the second recommendation in the manifesto, which has already been alluded to two or three times in this debate, should be followed up. I hope that there will be something in the Queen’s Speech about it, because I do not like the way in which party politics is funded in this country—and I know that that view is widely shared in all parts of your Lordships’ House and in all parts of the country. But what we now have is a Bill that can go on to the statute book and which honours a number of the important pledges in last year’s manifesto. I accept that a manifesto Bill is different from another sort of Bill. Therefore, we have something in which the Government can take a degree of quiet satisfaction—and those of us who were concerned about the underlying unfairness of the original Bill can also feel that it has been improved.

I was only too glad to put my name—alongside that of my noble friend Lord Balfe—to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, also signed it. Your Lordships’ House gave that a very large majority, as I said. So the Government’s choice was a very simple one: should they go along with the will of your Lordships’ House as expressed in the Division Lobbies or should they invite further defeat, which could have jeopardised every particular of the Bill?

I think that the Government have made a wise, moderate and sensible decision. I pay unreserved tribute to the unfailing courtesy and diligence of my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe and to Mr Boles in another place. I hope that we can now move on. Last week, when we had the Third Reading, I said I hoped that the spirit of euphoria was not premature. I hope that it will not prove to have been premature and that we can now accept what is before us and get something on the statute book that is much more acceptable to those who have genuine concerns.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

My Lords, we in this House often complain that the other place has ignored our views. It is unusual, and perhaps regrettable, that some noble Lords complained today that the other place listened attentively to the views of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and to the vote in this House, which was supported all around the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, including on the government Benches. I do not know whether there was a deal, but whether or not there was, an act of political wisdom has occurred and we should welcome it.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for not just tabling this Motion, which I very much support, but for the way in which she has patiently conducted proceedings on the Bill and dealt with sometimes unhelpful contributions from people such as myself.

My concerns about the Bill were in relation to check-off and the proposals to change to an opting-in arrangement, which were coupled with an announcement by the Chancellor to cut Short money. It seemed to me that the Government were abusing their power in order to damage the funding of the Official Opposition. That is why I was opposed to these particular provisions of the Bill. I had a difficulty because there was a manifesto commitment in respect of the opt-in, opt-out proposals. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others have pointed out, that manifesto commitment was to look at the question of opting in and opting out in the context of overall party funding. I think it is wrong for a Government to use their power to dis their opponents, or in a way which leaves open to question whether or not they are acting in the interests of the country as a whole or in the interests of a party. For years and years, I have made speeches attacking the Labour Party and suggesting that its dependence on trade union funds meant that policy could potentially be up for sale. Having listened patiently to the very persuasive arguments put forward by my noble friend to indicate why a change of policy should not be agreed, it was with some dismay that I heard suddenly—I believe I am not the only person who heard suddenly; I think some Front Bench people heard suddenly—that the Government’s position had changed completely.

In the debate in the other place, Mrs Cheryl Gillan, a former Cabinet Minister—not someone who is prone to conspiracy theories or anything other than considered judgment—asked the Minister, Nick Boles, what he made of what had been written by a senior political journalist in the Telegraph, who reported:

“Last night a union source said bosses had always been clear that it would be ‘difficult’ to spend significant amounts on the campaign to keep Britain in the union”— that means the European Union, by the way—

“while fighting against the Trade Union Bill. But they revealed that unions will now step up their campaigning and funding efforts in light of the concessions”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/4/16; col. 1549.]

These last-minute concessions also produced a report on “Channel 4 News” by Michael Crick which indicated that the remain campaigns on the Labour side, which had previously had funds of only £75,000, now as a result of this extraordinary change of policy had £1.7 million available to them.

It may be that the Government suddenly had a Damascene conversion. It may be that these journalists are correct. If these journalists are correct, the Government have changed their policy in return for funding from an outside body to support their position on the European Union. This is a Government who have already committed £9.6 million of taxpayers’ money, against the advice of the Electoral Commission, in order to advance their cause.

If we really are serious about changing people’s perception of our politics, we should not be conducting our affairs in this manner. There was a perfectly good case for making these changes to the Bill in that they were unfair to the Labour Party and the trade union movement. There is an even stronger case for looking at political funding as a whole and having a sensible system. So I find myself in the most extraordinary position of not wanting to take yes for an answer.

Of course, I understand the practical nature of politics and that compromise—

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 5:30 pm, 3rd May 2016

My noble friend was a distinguished Cabinet Minister back in the 1990s. Is he not being unduly cynical? Surely he cannot believe that the Government would come up with a shoddy deal such as this.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

I am tempted to be sanctimonious about this. What I found most risible about the Government’s explanation for their somersault was when Nick Boles, when asked why he had changed his mind, said:

“I urge my hon. Friend to look at the people who spoke in the debate and voted, or very assertively chose not to vote, in support of the Government’s position. They included not just Lord Cormack and Lord Balfe but Lord Forsyth, who supports the same campaign on the European Union that my hon. Friend has supported”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/4/16; col. 1545.]

I really do resent being cited in support of a very shoddy deal. Later he said—contrary to what my noble friend has been saying—that he did not want to listen to the arguments at all. He said:

“I did not want to listen at all. I am afraid I simply acknowledged that, faced by an array of forces—it is not just led by the noble Lord Burns, but includes most of the Cross Benchers, all the Liberal Democrats, all the members of Labour party and very influential Conservative peers, such as Lord Forsyth, Lord Deben, Lord Balfe and Lord Cormack—neophytes in this game like me perhaps need to concede defeat”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/4/16; col. 1549.]

This is something I shall quote on many future occasions.

Photo of Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Conservative

My Lords, I think my noble friend Lord Forsyth has unravelled a puzzle. I, too, am disappointed by what has happened. I assumed that when the Conservative Party put in its manifesto the commitment to move from opt-out to opt-in, it thought it was the right thing to do. When it appeared in the Bill, I thought it was the right thing to do. I thought the party thought it was the right policy, and I think it was the right policy.

I have heard the word “compromise” used today. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, used it several times. I understand that we are at the end of the Session. I understand the need for compromise, concession and deals. But this is none of these things. This is the abandonment of a Conservative manifesto pledge, and we should say that. I notice that my honourable friend in the other place, Mr Nick Boles, turned what was a manifesto commitment into what he called a suggestion in the manifesto. It was not a suggestion, it was a promise. When we debated this last time, my noble friend the Minister said it was right for Governments to honour their commitments.

Of course I accept the decision of the other place. My noble friend Lord Forsyth has given his explanation for why this manifesto commitment was abandoned. I say only that junior Ministers in this Government, who are extremely able and good, often have a very hard task.

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Conservative

My Lords, I will not speak for long because we have discussed this at length. I think we have all reached agreement as to why, as my noble friend Lord Sherbourne said, we are going from opt-out to opt-in. We have been through some people’s perception that there has been legislation in the past that has affected political disclosure, if not donations, and have discussed PPERA. But we have now reached a point where we have something before us. This time, unlike on previous occasions, I find myself agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on where we are.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for crystallising my mind: clearly I am not an influential Conservative Peer because my suggestions have not been adopted.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My noble friend is extremely influential. It was Mr Boles who did not think to include him.

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Conservative

I am grateful for that clarification. The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, has explained how Ministers approach these problems. Sadly, again, I have never had the honour of being a Minister. That is most unlikely. I come from more of a business background and in business when one wants to get things done invariably there has to be an element of compromise. Like the rest of the House, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on achieving a compromise. How and why it was achieved we will perhaps never know but it has been achieved. We will end up with an opt-in. It will take longer than other people thought appropriate but it will happen. The suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, of the publication of the opt-in levels achieved is excellent and to be welcomed. On all those grounds, I welcome these amendments.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

My Lords, I think we are in for a pretty bad couple of months, in which conspiracy theories will abound and suspicions of motives will arise in every possible circumstance as we approach an interesting referendum. I notice the good humour in the Chamber today. I think that if these amendments had not been tabled, there might be a very different atmosphere indeed. I agree very much with what my noble friend Lord Forsyth and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, have said.

Democratic power has to be used with discretion and responsibility. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to this, and I agree with aspects of what he said. I was worried about the way that the Bill, as originally drafted, was going to go. Whatever discussions there were in government and in another place when the amendments came forward and were considered, I hope that there was a bit of historical memory in them—I think that there was—because we have been here before.

I was there in 1984, when it was proposed that we would do something about opting-in. I do not think that I am breaking a great confidence if I tell the House that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, who was then the Chief Whip, had an interesting discussion with the Labour Chief Whip of that time, Michael Cox, who some may remember. They were arranging the business, as Chief Whips do, in those awful usual channels. There was agreement and compromise at that time in the Session. Then the issue came up about opting in—and the message was delivered quite simply and clearly: “If you do that, there will be war”. That was because it is an essential problem of political funding, with which all parties have problems, that the trade union contribution is massively important to the Labour Party. A sudden change in that would have significantly affected the balance and would have seemed, to many eyes, to have been a pretty unfair action and maybe an abuse of majority political power at that time.

It was against that background that such a proposal was put forward. When we considered it in the Bill that became the Trade Union Act 1984, Mr Len Murray came to see me for the trade unions and we discussed the issue. He had previously had discussions with my predecessor and noble friend Lord Tebbit, who one could not call a soft touch on these matters. But my noble friend made it clear that if the Trades Union Congress wished to put forward alternative proposals, he would be prepared to consider them. It fell to my lot to consider those proposals. We agreed that we would not proceed with the opting-in proposals, on the strict understanding that actions would be taken by the TUC and all affiliated unions at that time. That is why I agree very much with the last comment of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, because we are where we are now. I support the actions in respect of new members coming in. That is an important step forward which did not exist before. We were not able to arrange it or go forward on it in my time; maybe we should have done.

I would like to read part of the statement that Len Murray—Lord Murray, as he was subsequently—gave when he came to see me and exchanged correspondence. He gave me a copy of the statement of guidance to the trade unions. It said:

“Following discussions between the TUC and the Secretary of State for Employment, the General Council have prepared the following Statement of Guidance on good trade union practice in respect of political fund arrangements and related matters for use by affiliated unions. Unions are asked to review their existing procedures as soon as possible to ensure that this guidance is acted upon”.

That guidance was satisfactory to me and to the Government because it made it clear that every affiliated union had given an undertaking that it would make sure that all its members were properly informed of what their rights were in these matters. The guidance ended with the statement:

“It is particularly important that unions’ procedures avoid the possibility of members being unaware of their rights in relation to the political fund or being unable to exercise them freely”.

On that understanding and on behalf of the Government, I agreed not to proceed with introducing changes to the situation on opting-out or opting-in.

The disappointment for me in the discussions on this Bill is to discover that only a very small number of the unions which were affiliated to the TUC ensured that the undertaking given to me on behalf of them all was actually carried out.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

If I may just finish this point, I will then give way to the noble Lord. What I want to know is: has the TUC now repudiated that understanding or is it agreeing that it stands? In the light of the amendment which the Government have agreed to, which deals with new members, will the position of existing members be exactly as encouraged by the noble Lord, Lord Burns? Will it ensure that the undertakings given to me are honoured and that people are aware of that undertaking?

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour 5:45 pm, 3rd May 2016

My former noble friend Lord Murray of Epping Forest was a man of great integrity. One of his straplines or catchphrases was, “We always deliver what we say we will deliver”. That was true of prices and incomes policy through the 1960s and 1970s. I challenge anybody to contest that point. It was not that there were no difficulties but, when we said that we had agreed something, we delivered. That was the first thing which Len Murray always said.

On this matter, my noble friend Lord Monks pointed out something that has never been refuted. He drew attention to this matter and that there had been no complaint on it until it was suddenly dragged up in this House in relation to the Bill. If the Government had had evidence of this matter along these lines, the first thing that they should have done was to get in touch with the TUC and say that they were concerned about it. Did they get in touch with the TUC? No, they did not. I think that there are some crocodile tears here from the noble Lord, Lord King, who does not normally go in for such point-scoring. I ask him to be a bit more careful about the implications of what he says about the TUC’s actions on this matter.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

I make it clear straightaway that I had the greatest respect for Lord Murray—Len Murray, as he was—and had extremely good relations with him. But I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lea, for making the point that this should be honoured. If there is evidence that it has not been honoured, it will obviously be a concern for responsible people in the TUC to see that it is. As I understand it, the noble Lord is saying that in no sense has it been repudiated or has the TUC withdrawn that undertaking. My point today is simply about the giving of that undertaking. I agree with the noble Lord that the observance of it and the checking as to whether it was being followed seem to have been pretty slack. It is helpful this has been brought to the attention of us all and I hope that it can now be followed through.

Photo of Lord Richard Lord Richard Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord King, for his history lesson but, with great respect to him, I do not think it very relevant or apposite in considering this amendment. I really do not know where the House is going to on this. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, says that he agrees with it but then complains about the way in which it was done. I think that the noble Lord, Lord King, agrees with it but because of something that happened in 1984 he is not very happy with it. The Conservative Members who were actually on the committee disagreed with it—understandably, perhaps—because their view, which they expressed vigorously on the committee, was not upheld by this House and has not been upheld by the House of Commons. There is a certain amount of dispute on both sides but this really is a sensible compromise.

As an old Fabian, when I looked at this amendment and the difficulties that it is designed to deal with, the phrase which came to my mind was that of Beatrice Webb. She talked about the inevitability of gradualness. It seems to me that once you have established the principle that opting in is right for new members, the “inevitability of gradualness” principle will take over and, in due course, you will have a comprehensive opt-in. I suspect that it will be much sooner than a lot of people think. This is a sensible compromise and, for heaven’s sake, let us accept it.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

The point that has been left out is the second half of what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, said, which was about opting in for new members but attention to right and proper communication with existing members.

Photo of Lord Richard Lord Richard Labour

That is in the amendment. Of course there should be proper respect. Trade unions are being placed under an obligation to tell their members once a year. What more does the noble Lord want?

Come on, get on with it.

Photo of Lord Mendelsohn Lord Mendelsohn Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My Lords, never has my appearance been so welcome. Government Amendments 7A to 7F mark significant movement from the original provisions in the Bill. I associate myself with the masterly summary, as presented by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, of how these amendments meet the requirements of the amendments passed in this House, and are consistent with the requirements of the manifesto but with the removal of the most egregious and deficient elements. These changes are a result of hard work carried out by the members of the Select Committee, led ably by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. The committee’s recommendations on opting in received cross-party support and support from the Benches of no party. I thank the Select Committee members and the noble Lord, Lord Burns, again for their efforts, which have contributed to the progress we see today.

The debates that we have had in this House on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, as well as the establishment of the Select Committee and the debate on that committee, demonstrated the very wide agreement that these provisions needed some change. The Select Committee has achieved that job very capably. Indeed, both the debate today and its tone demonstrate how this House has done a great service to everyone in ensuring that these measures were brought forward.

I also note that a great majority in the House was in favour of such a provision. That is an important distinction in many debates that take place, but this one had such a broad consensus that it really was a full expression of the whole House. I thank the Ministers—the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, and Mr Boles in another place—for the way that they considered, engaged with and were very open to the discussion and debates that we had.

I have one particular observation in relation to the process. The Select Committee report was extremely impressive, and introduced elements which added to the debates of this House and another place. Indeed, it identified some of the deficiencies in the original impact assessment. In particular, the use of behavioural economics and behavioural psychology to try to understand what the likely consequences of such a provision would be was extremely useful. I hope that the Minister will consider using that sort of insight much more widely in impact assessments, so that we can properly judge what the consequences of measures are likely to be.

It will come as no surprise that we on these Benches thought the Bill should not have contained any of these measures in the first place. However, we recognise that the Government’s new proposals are a substantial improvement from where we were just a few weeks ago. We hope that the other issues raised by the Select Committee, including the issue around cross-party talks and party funding reform, are not ignored and are taken up swiftly, and that we can move beyond using democratic power for narrow party advantage, which usually comes with terrible unintended consequences, and build a stronger political system with greater participation and confidence.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My Lords, I recognise the emotions that this Motion has elicited, and that opinions are divided, but take the opportunity to thank noble Lords from all sides of the House for the support that they have given me personally. It is a pleasure, sitting on the Front Bench, that occasionally you get support from all sides, including today from disappointed friends such as my noble friend Lord Robathan. I hope we have found a balance that allows us to move forward, as we have managed elsewhere on this contentious Bill. In particular, I am glad that when an individual joins a union they will have to be made aware of any political fund and give their consent to paying into it. When we did our research, which we shared with the committee, we were shocked, as my noble friend Lord King said, at how untransparent some unions were on the possibility of opt-out.

The Bill has been amended to reflect the Select Committee’s recommendations on opting in. The amendment in this place was, as has been said, carried by a majority. My noble friend Lord Cormack mentioned this, but the majority against the Government was 148—320 to 172—so I would say in response to my noble friend Lord Forsyth that I was not very persuasive. Our manifesto undertook to ensure that trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions. My honourable friend Nick Boles made it clear in the other place last week that the revised provision meets that commitment. I have nothing to add to what he said about the suggestion that these final changes reflect wider considerations. As far as I am concerned, we are adopting the proposals of the Select Committee. We have listened to common sense, including the comments made by my noble friend Lord Forsyth in January about how the opt-out would be unfair to the Labour Party, and the current clause meets our manifesto commitment.

My noble friend Lord Leigh and, on the other Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, emphasised the point about compromise. In future, all new trade union members will have to make a transparent and active choice to contribute to the political fund through an opt-in. Over time, with membership churn and evolution, opt-in will become the norm. On a point of detail, I acknowledge that the spirit of the Select Committee’s recommendation was to extend annual reminders to all members, and we have not gone as far as we might have done in that respect. The statutory requirement in the Bill extends to new members only, but I expect and hope that unions will communicate with all their members at the same time. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, that the best way forward is to provide guidance on best practice and to encourage unions to ensure that their annual communications on rights to opt in and opt out are sent to all members.

I am always glad to hear from my noble friend Lord King. He has helped me through some very difficult moments on the Bill. Of course, the King-Murray agreement is still in place for existing contributors to political funds, and the TUC has issued guidance to all unions. This should mean that all unions will remind those currently contributing to political funds that they have a choice about contributing to the union’s political fund. I do not know what the TUC reply would be, but the guidance about good practice proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, should obviously help to address the issue.

I hope that noble Lords will recognise the co-operation we have had on the Bill across the House and how accommodating the Government have been in responding to the Select Committee’s recommendations on opt-in. I hope this will be remembered should future Governments turn their minds to matters of party-political funding.

The noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Whitty, raised the wider issue of party-political funding. The Government have a separate manifesto commitment relating to such funding, and we remain open to constructive debate and dialogue on how we can further strengthen confidence in our democratic process and increase transparency and accountability. However, this Bill is about trade union reform, and party funding is not in scope. I must therefore return the debate to the issues of this Bill.

Wherever noble Lords stand on trade union reform, I hope that they will recognise that the principle of the Select Committee’s recommendations has been taken on board. We are nearly at the end of the Bill process and approaching the end of the parliamentary Session with a number of Bills still outstanding, and I hope the House will feel able to bring this particular issue to a conclusion today.

Motion B agreed.

Motion C

Moved by Lord Bridges of Headley

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 17, to which the Commons have disagreed, and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 17A, 17B and 17C to the words restored to the Bill by that disagreement.

17: Clause 13, leave out Clause 13 Commons Disagreement and Amendments to the words so restored to the BillThe Commons disagree with Lords Amendment No. 17, but do propose Amendments 17A, 17B and 17C to the words so restored to the Bill—

17A: Page 9 leave out lines 30 to 32 and insert—“(1) After the end of the period of three years beginning with the day on which the first regulations under section 172A come into force, a Minister of the Crown may exercise the reserve powers (see subsection (2)) if the Minister considers it appropriate to do so having regard to—(a) information published by employers in accordance with publication requirements;(b) the cost to public funds of facility time in relation to each of those employers;(c) the nature of the various undertakings carried on by those employers;(d) any particular features of those undertakings that are relevant to the reasonableness of the amount of facility time;(e) any other matters that the Minister thinks relevant.(1A) The reserve powers may not be exercised so as to apply to any particular employer unless—(a) a Minister of the Crown has given notice in writing to the employer—(i) setting out the Minister’s concerns about the amount of facility time in the employer’s case, and(ii) informing the employer that the Minister is considering exercising the reserve powers in relation to that employer;(b) the employer has had a reasonable opportunity to respond to the notice under paragraph (a) and to take any action that may be appropriate in view of the concerns set out in it;and the powers may not be exercised until after the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the day on which the notice under paragraph (a) was given.”

17B: Page 9, line 37, leave out from “for” to “that” in line 43 and insert “the purpose of ensuring”

17C: Page 10, line 25, at end insert—“( ) The regulations may confer power on a Minister of the Crown, by notice in writing to a particular employer, to suspend the application of the regulations to that employer for such period and to such extent as the Minister may specify in the notice.”

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 6:00 pm, 3rd May 2016

My Lords, there has been much debate over the Government’s wish to have a reserve power to place a cap on facility time. The Government have listened to that debate and, as I said last week, the amendments before your Lordships today reflect a number of points made in this House.

First, the amendments set out that the cap will not be exercised until three years have elapsed after transparency regulations come into force. Secondly, they ensure that, where there is cause for concern about levels of facility time, public sector employers will be put on notice and given at least a year from the date of such notice to make progress before a cap can be applied. Thirdly, they guarantee that the employer will have the opportunity to set out the reasons for their levels of facility time. Fourthly, they set out clear criteria that the Minister must have regard to when considering the exercise of the power. Fifthly, they provide employers with an opportunity to take action to meet the Minister’s concerns and to evidence it via their data. If there is insufficient progress, the Minister will then be at liberty to exercise the reserve power and make regulations to cap facility time for that employer or those employers.

These safeguards provide a high degree of comfort about the circumstances that must arise before the reserve power could be contemplated. They underline that this is very much a reserve power to be used in exceptional circumstances—only where valid concerns have been raised and inadequately addressed over a long period. I remind your Lordships that this measure would be exercised under the affirmative procedure.

I urge your Lordships to see these amendments as a reasonable, practical and balanced means of addressing concerns while enabling the Government to meet their objective. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench

My Lords, I first declare my interest as president of the Local Government Association. Your Lordships will be aware that I moved an amendment to delete Clause 13 from the Bill. I did so because I was concerned about the extensive powers it gave to the Secretary of State for what, as far as I could see, was little justification. That is why I argued that this provision is necessary: so that the transparency provisions of Clause 12 will control expenditure and make visible the amount that public bodies spend.

My sense is still that there is no convincing case for why the clause is needed, but I acknowledge the considerable distance the Government have gone by introducing safeguards that will protect public bodies from arbitrary power in this situation. I absolutely welcome that movement, which reflects well on the Government and Ministers.

I hope that this is a reserve power that we never see used. I hope that the rational decisions of public bodies and the process that will now be put in place will ensure that we never need to impose this reserve power. I recognise that there are now proper safeguards, and I welcome that change.

Photo of Lord Stoneham of Droxford Lord Stoneham of Droxford Liberal Democrat

I want to make just one brief point. We, too, welcome the amendment and the compromise which the Government are showing. However, having got rid of quite a lot of the powers, we are still left with a hell of a lot of bureaucracy—for no good purpose, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, was suggesting. It is now a very complicated procedure and one wonders whether this will disappear into the long grass and be quietly forgotten. It would have been much better to have a one-off review to see what the problem is and deal with it through the management of the public sector, rather than setting up this ridiculous bureaucracy for no good purpose.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clarity and brevity—after the previous debate—in introducing the amendment. I also thank him for taking the time to meet me and colleagues to discuss the possible introduction of a cap on facility time. He knows that we have serious concerns, which we retain, about the principle, and that we have even greater concerns about how it might work. How and when would a Minister decide that the amount of time taken needed to be restricted, and on what grounds? Would it be contrary to the desire of the relevant employer?

We raised the example of organisations going through contraction, restructuring, relocation or even growth, where more negotiating time with union reps is always needed. There is also the example of industries with particular safety issues or health issues—we discussed the health service—where safety reps might be needed more than average, thereby pushing up the overall amount of facility time recorded.

On the phrase,

“any other matters that the Minister thinks relevant”, it would be helpful to hear from the Minister what sort of things he deems might be relevant. However, that is the only remaining issue, because the others we raised have been met by the safeguards he has just listed. They will spell out that particular instances can be given and that the employer will have time to give reasons.

The remaining issue is therefore one we discussed under the previous clause: whether charities might be caught by this provision. I acknowledge the discussions we have had and those that will now take place with the organisations likely to be affected, including with representatives of charities. We also recognise that we will be able to debate this further when the relevant regulations are brought forward.

These amendments show that the Government have clearly heard our original concerns. They have produced a schema which allows the relevant comparative data to be used and judged alongside similar industries and organisations, and which allows time for consultation with the employer, giving them the opportunity to explain the management practice that requires so much union reps’ time to do their work. We still concur with the view of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, that this is an unnecessary measure and would prefer the cap to be dead and buried. However, having recognised that we were not going to win that one, we acknowledge the change that the amendments have made and are happy to support them.

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank the noble Baroness, the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, for their comments. Where there was discord, we have brought a bit more harmony, at least, on this point. There is clearly disagreement on the need for such a measure, but I would argue that that is precisely why we need the data. What the data will show will determine whether the reserve power needs to be exercised in exceptional circumstances. I very much hope that the assurances I have given today address a number of the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and others.

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, about bureaucracy, I simply repeat that a considerable section of the public sector already considers publishing information on facility time to be best practice. I highlighted what is published in the local government transparency code and what the Department for Education recommends that all schools publish. His point about bureaucracy—ensuring that it is kept to a minimum—is of course one that every Government wish to heed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, raised the question of other issues that are deemed to be relevant. In essence, they must be relevant without being capable of being specified now, because that will be set out in the evidence given when the Government bring in regulations—which, as I said, would be debated by both Houses of Parliament.

With that, I am once again grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, for their constructive comments and the conversations we have had. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Non-affiliated

Before the Minister sits down, I intervene briefly to repeat the thanks already expressed by other Peers in the debate on these amendments today and on the previous occasion when the Bill was being considered. We give our thanks to the Government, to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, particularly for their very helpful adjustments and changes in response to the earlier debates. It was an outstanding example of how the House of Lords can be genuinely useful to the British public in improving controversial legislation. We are grateful for that progress.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My Lords, last week at Third Reading I thanked at some length all those who have worked so hard and debated so eloquently throughout the passage of this Bill. I am glad to be able to thank today my noble friend Lord Bridges, and the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Burns, as they are actually in the Chamber. It has been a small marathon of a Bill and I am delighted that it can now go forward for Royal Assent.

Motion C agreed.