Examination of Witnesses

Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:31 am on 13 October 2015.

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Roy Rickhuss and John Hannett gave evidence.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 10:15, 13 October 2015

Good morning. Our next session will last for half an hour. We have got Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of Community, and John Hannett, general secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. You are very welcome to our morning session. Members will ask you questions, and they may ask you a supplementary question—it is quite relaxed. We will try to get everyone in who wants to ask you a question in the next half an hour.

Q 52

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

A question first to Roy and then one to John. In terms of the steel industry’s history and industrial relations in the industry as a whole over the past 20 years, where do you think positive industrial relations have helped for both employees and employers in what are clearly difficult times? I particularly commend your work on the situation at SSI, but will you speak in general terms about what benefits a positive relationship between trade unions and employers can have in a crucial industry?

Roy Rickhuss: Perhaps I should start by explaining that my union, Community, was formed in 2004 as a merger between the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and the Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades. The ISTC was predominantly the steelworkers’ union and KFAT was predominantly textile and footwear. My background is within the steel industry. I was a steelworker when I left school right up until when I started to work full time for the union.

To answer the question on the steel industry, since 1980—incidentally, that was probably when we had the last major dispute in the industry and that was a good many years ago, so we have not done too badly in terms of industrial relations. When you look at and consider the massive changes that have gone on not just in the steel industry but in a lot of our traditional industries that are now in the private sector, we have seen massive changes: job losses; restructuring; reorganisations; flexible working; upskilling; and team working. Change is constant, and throughout that process, my union, like other unions, has been at the forefront of ensuring that that has happened smoothly, in the best interests of employees and the employer, and I think we have done a pretty good job.

I think we have also done a pretty good job in terms of trying to protect the industry. You mentioned briefly the SSI situation, and that is an absolute tragedy. We have a steel summit on Friday where we are meeting with the Minister, Anna Soubry, and we are doing everything we can to try to save steelmaking on Teesside. I do not know whether that answers your question, Stephen, but clearly we would not be where we are today in terms of having any steel industry left in the UK if it was not for the good industrial relations that we have enjoyed for 30 or 40 years.

Q 53

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Do you think that the Bill risks worsening industrial relations across the economy as a whole?

Roy Rickhuss: I do, because industrial relations—the previous speaker was interesting—is about getting the balance right. At the moment, if I am honest, I think the balance is not right; I think it is probably weighted slightly on the employer’s side already. So we need that balance and we need good industrial relations.

We have been calling on the Government for some time to look at reviewing and overhauling industrial relations in this country and trying to develop more of a partnership approach where employee representatives and trade unions work in a positive way with good employers, because, at the end of the day, that is what we want. I have never met anybody in my career who does not want to work for a successful company or be part of a successful business, because that gives stability and job security and allows people to do the things in their lives that they want to do. So it is about getting the balance right and working in partnership.

Q 54

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

John, as you represent a significant number of members in a diffuse sector, what are the Bill’s specific problems and challenges for your members? I wonder in particular what your views are about the Government’s proposals on check-off.

John Hannett: USDAW is the fourth largest union, as you may know, with more than 440,000 members. In fact, it has grown by 100,000 members in the past 10 years. I have spent the past 12 years as general secretary, and seven before as deputy general secretary, promoting the partnership model that Roy referred to. The Bill, in a sense, feels to me more like a control mechanism than a fostering of good industrial relations. What do I mean by that? If you look at the agreement we have with some of the biggest private sector companies, those agreements and those relationships have been informed by, and developed based on, trust, understanding the business and honest representation.

The problem with the Bill is that it sounds like something that is highly political and intended to control behaviour more than foster good industrial relations. We have the biggest private sector partnership agreement in the country, with more than 180,000 members in one of the most successful businesses. All those negotiations take place in a spirit of trust, of building up the relationship and of understanding the sector.

In terms of check-off, this is interesting. If you look at the agreements we have within the biggest organisations in the country, these check-off arrangements have worked. They have been negotiated with those individual companies. To be perfectly honest, without check-off, it would be extremely difficult for a union like mine, which operates in a seven-day, 24-hour sector, where people are working short hours and long hours, and trying to collect union contributions. There is also something significant about check-off. It is a kind of identity between the employer and the union that we co-exist and work together. It is part of their commitment to the union, as we commit to some of the changes.

Roy referred to the many, many changes he has had to oversee. The biggest company we have the agreement with now is going through difficult times. The union is here now, operating and dealing with those issues—not just the good times, but the difficult times too. Is the Bill intended to help industrial relations? I have not seen the evidence. The best way to improve industrial relations is between the employer and the unions where they are represented, in consultation with their employees.

Q 55

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Can I move you on to some questions about the political levy? It seems to me that there is a fundamental principle of fairness in this. Voluntary funds, which is what the political levy is, should not be taken out of someone’s pay packet without their consent. Do you agree with that?

John Hannett: My union has a very clear position on this that has been in place since the union merged in 1947. First, our rulebook is very explicit about the right to be paying the political levy. On our membership form, when somebody joins the trade union, there is a very explicit clause that says, “If you do not wish to pay the levy, you do not have to.” Some of our members exercise that right, so we already cover it with our form and we are transparent about this in all our communications with our members.

Q 56

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Do you think that offers the sort of consumer protection that others outside of the trade union movement would expect in being able to deal with the political levy?

Roy Rickhuss: It is a fair question, but I also believe that trade unions are so transparent and democratic—we are probably the most democratic organisations in the country. Our members decide whether they want to have a political fund. Our rulebook and our constitution is voted on by our members—we have to re-ballot them every 10 years, but we have rule changes in between. We have conferences where members can put forward motions and debate issues, so I really do think, democratically, that the fact we have a political fund and we use it for political campaigning is well understood by our members. They vote for it positively time and time again, so I think we are covered. I fully agree with John—people are aware of the unions’ activities because we make them well known. We publicise them, and people do opt out of paying the political levy if they want to do so.

John Hannett: I am conscious of other questions, but I should remind you that in terms of our own levy, the political levy has to be balloted every 10 years. We had a 93% vote in favour, and we communicate that through all our journals.

Q 57

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Do you think that is applicable right across the board, to other trade unions? You have said what the position is in your own union.

John Hannett: I do. It is very difficult for a trade union to not be transparent in an issue like this, because if you are politically active and campaigning, you have to demonstrate how you spend your money to not only the certification office but also to your members. My union has an annual conference. The idea of not being transparent to an annual conference plus regional conferences would be impossible. As Roy said, it is the most open, democratic process you can have. Our members are not silly. They know where the money goes; they know how it is spent. And if you get a 93% vote in favour, I think that is pretty conclusive in agreeing that they should pay it.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Okay. We have a long list of questions. You are warming up your audience, gentlemen, so we will be as brisk as we can.

Q 58

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

Gentlemen, both of you have extensive trade union experience. In your experience, what factors lead to low turnouts when it comes to ballots? Do you support the modernisation of the ballot process—for example, secure workplace balloting? Do you think that it is going to be more difficult to obtain industrial action on issues where there are now 45-day notices of changes to terms and conditions and voluntary redundancy? Lastly, do you think that the picket proposals will lead to more blacklisting?

Roy Rickhuss: There are a lot of questions in one there and it is difficult to answer. I am not sure why there are low turnouts in ballots. We do not experience that. In our union, we recently had a ballot on a pensions issue in one of our traditional industries and we had a well over 75% turnout. I think one issue is the way ballots are currently run. There are already significant, onerous conditions on trade unions in terms of balloting.

One issue in our response to the Bill has been the use of modern technology and electronic balloting. For the life of me, I just cannot understand why there would be any objections to that sensible move forward. I have seen some commentary saying, “Well, it’s not safe and secure.” That is so ridiculous, in fairness. You have to realise that people are not stupid; they do everything online these days. You can do all your banking, you can sign legal documents—you can do everything possible online. To suggest that you cannot vote in a ballot because it is not safe and secure undermines the whole principle of the debate. I think if we had a sensible debate about how ballots are conducted, we might make some serious progress.

Blacklisting is not an issue that my union has experienced significantly. Other unions, predominantly in the building and construction industry, obviously have major concerns about that, so yes, I would imagine that for some unions, it would be a serious concern.

John Hannett: A union like USDAW organises completely in the private sector. We operate in sectors that operate 24/7, seven days a week. My experience when I was particularly active as a union representative was that we had workplace arrangements whereby you could ballot. That used to enable people to go and vote. Of course, the world has changed and it is difficult to facilitate that kind of arrangement, but in terms of the technology, we know that the number of members who join online and who are communicating with the union online is increasing on a regular basis, so the idea of providing a new form of voting is, I think, a sensible one. Like Roy, I have heard nothing that persuades me it could not be done.

The other thing is the industrial relations side that you are picking up. We have a big productivity challenge in the UK. Everybody understands that. What I fear with many of these issues, including the argument about making it harder to run these events, is actually going the other way. So if you are really serious about turnout, you would consider electronic balloting. And in terms of engineering and encouraging good industrial relations, it is not about control mechanisms; it is about engagement, partnership and talking. In fact, if anything, I think this makes it harder for the employers, because this is seen more as controlling mechanisms than constructive relationships. I think it will have a negative impact.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I still have seven people who want to ask questions, so from now on we will have one question and one brisk answer, if you do not mind.

Q 59

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Conservative, Richmond (Yorks)

Thank you, Sir Edward. I very much echo the comments in your submission that responsible trade unions are a force for good in the workplace and the community, so thank you for that.

I just want to return to the topic of the political levy. I was glad to hear that both of you, on your membership form, specifically provide members with the information to opt out. It turns out that that is not as common as you would think and many other unions do not do that. Given what you have said about the importance of transparency and the reason for you to have put that on the form, do you think that it is appropriate that other unions do not include that information?

John Hannett: Well, you are going to be speaking to other unions and they will give you their answer, but for me, it is right to do it, because I think that if I am going  to recruit somebody into the union, I have a responsibility to tell them what they get for their money; I have a responsibility to tell them where their money is allocated. Our form is very clear, and we can certainly give you copies of the form. It is explicit that if you wish to drop out, you can. I think that is honest and the right thing to do. I think that is honest and the right thing to do.

Q 60

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Opposition Whip (Commons)

Can I ask Mr Hannett a specific question? You have run campaigns such as “Freedom From Fear”, which is about highlighting abuse against workers in retail and other such sectors. Can you tell the Committee how the measures in clause 11 might affect your ability to run such non-political campaigns?

John Hannett: I am sure that the Committee is aware that there are two separate funds. One is the political fund, which allows us to do political campaigns, so where there is a political link clearly we identify the campaigns as such. For instance, that one is linked politically; it is also linked industrially. On one level we engage with employers about providing good, safe environments for people to work in, but there is also a political impact when we want to campaign for new legislation to protect shop workers. Therefore, we need the resources to do that. We need the right balance, and the political levy and the combination of general and political funds enable us to do that. Without that kind of resource what you are doing is effectively making it harder for unions such as mine to campaign on such issues.

What is really important for me in the question though is the transparency. In a sense, when we go for that 10-year ballot we make it absolutely clear what we spend the money on and we also, of course, let the certification officer see clearly where we spend it. I suppose that unions such as mine and Roy’s are confused about why we are in this situation when we have had a highly successful model.

Roy Rickhuss: We also ran a fairly successful campaign around betting shops and against violence towards workers and staff in those shops, and I am pleased to say that it had all-party support. It was a successful campaign. It is questionable, and I do not know the answer at this stage, whether we would have been able to run those campaigns if they had been deemed to be political and the money had needed to come out of a political fund.

We also ran a fairly successful campaign on pensions when the last Labour Government was in power. We had a company in Cardiff that went into receivership—administration—and our members lost their pensions. We ended up taking the Labour Government to the European courts to establish the financial assistance scheme. Again, would we have been able to do that had we not had a political fund? That was about holding the Government to account in terms of protecting our members and their pensions, and we did it—and always will do it—irrespective of the colour of the Government. Whether it be Labour or Conservative, we will use our funds to protect our members’ best interests and that is what it is about for us.

Q 61

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

You have been very reasonable and measured in your evidence, so I thank you for that. Going back to the importance of thresholds, do you agree with Mr McCluskey when he writes to the Prime Minister:

“No one, of course, can be happy when strike action takes place—especially in services on which the public depend—on the basis of the active endorsement of only a minority of trade union members affected”,

and that that clearly helps to make the case for the proposed thresholds?

John Hannett: My view on that is, first, that the obvious thing is that industrial action is a last resort. I spend most of my time as a trade unionist problem solving rather than problem causing. Also, for a member to vote to take industrial action, it has to be a last resort. I could give you statistics, but given the time I will not. We can say that we certainly solve problems more than we go on strike.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

If you want to add more you can always write to us. Do not feel constrained in that sense. We are anxious to hear the whole story.

John Hannett: Thank you, Chairman. The point I would make is that if you want thresholds and turnout to be the case, you must help as much as you can to get turnout—the access, the facilities and the objective of talking to employees before they participate. But the interesting thing is that if you look at the world of work —I mentioned seven-day, 24-hour sectors—reaching out to those people is very difficult. Our members expect us now to communicate in a way we did not some years ago when people would be released from work when branch meetings took place. Now we have to use the technology to do it. You will get the thresholds up, providing you give the opportunity for people to participate.

In conclusion, it is very difficult, today, even where we have legislation for unions to be recognised, to get access to employees. The private sector is only 15% organised, and that in itself creates a problem. I have no problem with thresholds, but it is the facilities and the access that is the issue.

Q 62

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Mr Rickhuss, I have a question about the related consultation on agency workers. Have you received any assurances from the Minister that insufficiently trained workers will not be used in safety-critical positions in your industry during industrial action?

Roy Rickhuss: Well, no, we have not but, in fairness, we have not had that discussion with the Minister at this stage. We have put our evidence to the Committee and we are here today. In terms of agency workers, that is a major concern for all of us. Across all our traditional industries, it seems such an easy thing to say, “We’ll bring in agency workers”, but it just cannot happen. People get killed in every industry and health and safety is paramount and so fundamentally important to all of us—to employers as well. I do not think employers would want this if you speak to them, because what employer is going to put people into a position where there is potential danger? It is not going to happen. These workers are not aliens from another planet; they live, breathe and work in our communities, they are part of our communities, they are people’s sons, daughters, family friends and relatives. It is, potentially, a very divisive clause in this Bill, to say that employers can bring in agency workers.

Briefly, the other impact, which I do not think has been thought through properly, is that we currently have really good agreements with employers—most employers—for the use of agency workers. They are brought in to supplement the workforce if there is a peak or a blip in an order book or a blip in terms of absenteeism. So we already have really good agreements with employers, where we co-operate fully with the use of agency workers to the point that our members—direct employees—will help to train and support those agency workers. My feeling on this, and this has not been said to me, so it is just a feeling at this stage, is that one of our direct members will now say, “Why are we co-operating with the use of agency workers if, if ever there was a dispute—which none of us wants—these agency workers can now be used against us to do our roles?”. My feeling is that some of those good agreements will be ripped up. We will have to give the required notice, but they will be ripped up and binned. Our members will say, “Why are we training agency workers to potentially do our jobs in the event of a dispute?”. I think that this is a really counterproductive measure.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I know that our next question will be very brief and to the point and our trade union team will give just one quick answer.

Q 63

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

I want to ask John Hannett—I know you are on the Low Pay Commission and that you have many workers at Tesco, many of whom will be mums, who work part-time, probably at the lower end of the pay scale. I am sure that you will agree they are precisely the sorts of people who suffer when the local school closes or when buses are on strike and that—going back to the thresholds, which is the most important part of the Bill—it is in their interests that we have very reasonable thresholds. On that basis, would you agree that the thresholds that we are putting forward are reasonable?

John Hannett: Well, I think you have to look not just at the thresholds in isolation but at access and balloting arrangements and that was the answer that we gave before. In terms of Tesco and people on low pay, the reality is that strikes are very small in number in the UK, which has been demonstrated over many years. What I think is missing, which is the general point that I would make—and I made the point about control mechanisms—is encouraging good industrial relations, partnership and the stuff that Roy and I are doing. It is all about a race to the bottom. The people who work in Tesco, of course they want to be able to take their children to school but the fact that there is a dispute means that the best emphasis is on how you resolve the dispute.

Everything that I heard in the Bill is about thresholds, mechanisms, control mechanisms—I have also been on the ACAS council for a number of years and all my training, which I believe applies to trade unions, is to solve the disputes. The first thing you do when you go on strike is to try to avoid it by using your mechanisms and your procedures. However, if you do end up in a strike position, there is not a trade union leader I know—or there should be no trade union leader—who takes strike action easily or recommends it. It is a very serious position to take; people lose money, or potentially lose their jobs. That is why think you will find, overall, unions are problem solvers, not problem causers.

Q 64

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

Good morning, Roy and John. I wanted to ask your opinion of the CBI’s evidence, in which they talked about facility time being more of an issue in the public sector than in the private sector. Roy, you know—being general secretary for workers represented in companies such as Tata, Celsa, Outokumpu, Forgemasters or Caparo—and I know, that the facility time agreed on those sites provides health and safety reps trained by the unions, who often become the next health and safety managers on site—for free for those companies. Will you go into the facility time implications that could become apparent on COMAH site safe workplaces?

Roy Rickhuss: Just briefly, obviously I am aware that facility time is probably more of an issue for the public sector—again, there is nothing to say whether that is politically motivated or not—but certainly in the private sector, in the industries that we work in, facility time is agreed with the employer, so the employer is happy and comfortable. It is interesting that employers, again, would probably say, “It’s agreed, it allows people to do a job of work both for the employer and the employee”—so they are attending meetings, doing planning strategy, representing people and ensuring that all the good industrial relations that we talked about are happening and working. Anything that impacts on or tries to interfere with that relationship will be detrimental to good industrial relations.

Q 65

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

Would you also say that they get the technical expertise from the shop floor, which improves efficiency on site?

Roy Rickhuss: Absolutely. People who have worked in a job or industry for a number of years know that job and that industry as well as anyone, so the fact that they are able to sit down with their supervisors and team leaders, or for team brief and so on, and they are able to give of that experience and give across that help and advice is invaluable.

I am not sure where all this fits with the ACAS code of practice, which is excellent and has been used as a good benchmark for decades. Trade union activist officials have the right to paid time off to do their duties, which has never really caused a problem. I am not aware of anyone objecting to that or trying to change the ACAS code of practice. It has worked reasonably well for a long time.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Okay. Very quick questions and answers now. Seema Kennedy.

Q 66

Photo of Seema Kennedy Seema Kennedy Conservative, South Ribble

Mr Rickhuss, in your written submission you bring out the point that you think that the Bill is going to put too much power in the hands of employers, but would you not agree that those affected by strikes in education and transport have no power at all? Also, when we have very low turnouts, those people are disproportionately powerful, because they can still bring a city to a standstill or close down an entire education system.

Roy Rickhuss: Again, you are talking about the public sector. I do not believe that anyone should be inconvenienced by strikes—that is not my position and I would not say that. What I do say is—back fully agreeing with John—it is about having proper industrial  relations and having a partnership approach. I do believe a threshold of 50% plus one is fair and reasonable, because that is what we have—that is our democracy.

It works both ways. If we have a proposal from the company or the management to change a particular working practice, which we deal with almost daily, that is the threshold for whether that working practice or change in terms and conditions is accepted or not. We do not say to our members, “We are going to have an onerous condition that says you have to vote by 60% or whatever to accept a change in your working practices.” The companies are quite happy with that. When they want to change a working practice, introduce some flexibilities and so on, they are quite happy for the union to consult its members, and come back and say, “Yes, that has been accepted by the members.”

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Okay. I have to stop you there—I think the Minister wants to have the last shout.

Q 67

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming. We are obviously not going to agree on every point in the Bill, but I salute you both as absolute exemplars of trade unions working at their best. In particular, Mr Rickhuss—I do not know whether I have pronounced your name correctly—I wanted to say that as well as having responsibility for the Bill I am the Skills Minister, and if there is anything I can do to help you in dealing with the dreadful situation for the thousands of your members in Redcar, please come directly to me, as I would like to do whatever I can.

Roy Rickhuss: Thank you.

Q 68

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Do you want to say anything in conclusion, gentlemen?

John Hannett: I have one quick comment. I would impress on the Committee the need to look at some of the best practice as well. Sometimes it feels like a lot of this is perhaps being driven by the worst examples. It would be worth looking at some of the biggest partnership agreements, particularly in the private sector. That would be a much more constructive way forward on industrial relations than just looking at the negative stuff. The model we should be looking at is the biggest private agreement in the country, with 180,000 members in one of the most successful businesses.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Thank you, gentlemen, for the impressive way you have answered our questions. That concludes this part of the sitting.