Examination of Witnesses

Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 13 October 2015.

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Jonathan Isaby and Tony Wilson gave evidence.

Q 176

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Thank you both for attending the hearing to answer the questions that Committee members will put to you. It is a strange way of doing things, but we want to ask you to introduce yourselves in a very short, precise manner and tell us about your backgrounds and why you are here. We will then move to a question-and-answer session, with Members asking you questions and you giving replies. Without further ado, Mr Wilson, would you like to start?

Tony Wilson: My name is Tony Wilson. I am managing director of Abellio London and Surrey. We are one of the London bus operators running red buses. We operate about 650 buses in London and employ 2,600 staff, about 2,200 of whom at least are represented by Unite the union under a recognition agreement.

Jonathan Isaby: My name is Jonathan Isaby. I am the chief executive of the TaxPayers Alliance—an organisation founded in 2004 that seeks to represent taxpayers across the UK. We have tens of thousands of supporters—about 80,000 supporters across the United Kingdom. We want to see lower, simpler taxes and less Government waste. We have conducted a lot of research over the years into how taxpayers’ money subsidises trade unions, and we have campaigned for that subsidy to be reduced as far as possible. Hence, I am delighted to have the opportunity to help the Committee with its deliberations today.

Q 177

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

My first question is for Jonathan. I have asked this of the TaxPayers Alliance previously. You stated that you have 80,000 supporters, but how representative of the UK are they? How do you consult them? Do they pay you money? How are they distributed across the geographical regions of the UK, income brackets and so on? Give us a flavour of the people you claim to represent.

Jonathan Isaby: I think you asked me exactly the same question when I appeared before the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs the other year.

Jonathan Isaby: I will give you exactly the same answer, which is that we have a broad swathe of support from across the whole United Kingdom. We regularly talk to our supporters through weekly email bulletins. We hold events up and down the country, and we engage with politicians across the political divide.

Q 178

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

I am surprised that you cannot answer, given that I have asked you this before. How have you consulted them about the Bill, and how many of them have lobbied you to see the Bill and all its provisions introduced?

Jonathan Isaby: I have a daily email dialogue with supporters from across the country.

Q 179

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

How many have written to you about this out of the 80,000?

Jonathan Isaby: I have not kept a tally, but it is an issue that exercises supporters. They have given me great encouragement to campaign on it.

Q 180

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

Okay. You spoke a minute ago about transparency in political funding—the funding that unions give for political causes and so on. Given that you speak out on those issues, would your organisation like to be subject to the rules that the Bill will impose? I have been looking at a very interesting website called “Who Funds You?”, which basically says that the TaxPayers Alliance does not display funding information on its website, does not name its organisational funders, does not declare amounts given by organisational funders, does not name individual funders and does not declare amounts given by individual funders. Why is it one rule for you and one rule for trade unions?

Jonathan Isaby: Well, we are subject to zero subsidy from the taxpayer. We are entirely funded by private individuals. We take the view that when taxpayers’ money is being spent, there needs to be a very high standard of transparency, so that taxpayers can see what is being doing with their money. We have a very broad base of support—thousands of people are financially  supporting us. We do not publish their names and we are not obliged to do so. We respect their right to privacy. Some individuals decide to identify themselves as supporters.

Q 181

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

So why should trade unions be subject to very intrusive explanations of all sorts of levels of funding? The Bill goes well beyond the established consensus on political funding and transparency. Why is it one rule for trade unions and a different rule for you?

Jonathan Isaby: As the Taxpayers Alliance has shown before, trade unions get a taxpayer subsidy in excess of £100 million a year. That is more than £100 million earned by your constituents that is effectively being handed to trade unions.

Q 182

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

Sorry, how can you justify that? Can you explain that?

Jonathan Isaby: How can I justify that figure?

Q 183

Jonathan Isaby: In the report that we published in 2013 or 2014, our most recent figures were that there were direct grants of about £23 million to trade unions from Government Departments and other public sector bodies and facility time was time worth at least £85 million a year, which is an underestimate, because a lot of public sector bodies are not properly recording facility time. There are some very good measures in the Bill that will crack down on that.

Q 184

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

Would you accept that the unions pay the public sector money for the provision of check-off, for example? There is money going in the opposite direction.

Jonathan Isaby: Well, that is another issue in the Bill. Only 22% of the public bodies that offer check-off are charging for that service, so, again, millions of pounds are being lost every year, which is basically a taxpayer subsidy to the unions through the provision of that kind of service. That is before we get into office space, telephone lines and other things that are not covered in the Bill but that I hope the Government will look at adding to it. Perhaps the Committee would like to add those things to the Bill because that is another subsidy that is totally unjustifiable in our view.

Q 185

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

So you are not willing to tell us how many people have lobbied you on this or where your money comes from, but you are willing to come here and make statements about what should happen to other civil society organisations. That is the nub of it.

Jonathan Isaby: There are hundreds or thousands of campaign groups and campaigning charities that will appear before such Committees and are not subject to intruding on the privacy of those who support them.

Q 186

Jonathan Isaby: If they are in receipt of taxpayers’ money, yes. That certainly goes for—

Q 187

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

In all aspects of their work, not in proportion to that funding or at any other level?

Jonathan Isaby: When millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being handed to an organisation, whether it is a trade union or, indeed, a charity—a lot of charities are in receipt of huge amounts of taxpayers’ money—there needs to be a very high standard of transparency to justify to taxpayers where that money is going.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Before we leave this subject, Mr Isaby, you made a lot of claims there about large amounts of money—£100 million and £85 million. Would you be able to write to Committee members outlining where those funds come from, because they have been a source of information that I think would—

Jonathan Isaby: The grants to the unions and so on?

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

You claimed that the figure is £100 million and £85 million—

Jonathan Isaby: It is in the written evidence that I have already provided to the Committee.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Will you elaborate on that in writing and send it to all Committee members on both sides, so that they might further digest your claims?

Jonathan Isaby: I will happily do so. It was in our report last year and it is in the evidence that I submitted to you, but I will happily do that.

Q 188

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I have a question for Mr Wilson. Can you describe the strike that your company faced? What was its effect on the travelling public and what are the likely effects of the thresholds?

Tony Wilson: The most recent strike was in relation to Unite’s quest for sector-wide collective bargaining across London. They obviously had to try to co-ordinate many legal entities. They managed to do that and we had a very low turnout in terms of our own workforce actually voting yes for the strike. It was even lower among union members as a proportion of the number of employees.

We were quite successful in the marketplace in terms of operating services. On the first day of operation, we got between 30% and 40% of the service out, but that is the peak-time service, which is what is mostly going to affect commuters both in the morning and afternoon. On the second day, 5 February, we got up to nearly 50% of our peak-time service out on the road. In any respect, that is a major disruption to the travelling public and it was not a great day for anybody who was trying to catch a bus. We were one of the most successful companies in terms of turning out services. Others varied at certain depots around London from zero to all the way up to similar levels to us. As a proportion of the total network, however, it was less than 50% out, certainly on the second day, which was the better of the two.

Q 189

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

And the effect of the thresholds in the Bill?

Tony Wilson: To me, the thresholds are all about proportionality. We rely entirely on collective bargaining within our organisation. We have a very good relationship with Unite. Across many years, I have never had any great issue with them. For us, it is the fact that very low numbers of the organisation can dictate to the mass. Some of that is to do with the fact that our particular company has quite a low percentage of union members  in the first place, but even they do not all go and vote. I think something like 12% of the total bus driver workforce actually voted yes and dictated to the vast majority.

I heard something earlier on about picket lines. On 13 January, there was no police presence on our picket lines, but there were a lot of people, and a lot of staff who would otherwise have come to work were deterred from doing so. Most pickets were not particularly antagonistic—some were a bit different—but the sheer number of people that they had to pass to get into work was a barrier to them. At one depot, the roadway was blocked, so we could not actually get buses in and out. On the second day, co-ordinating with Transport for London, we had a large police presence on all of our sites. It was far more organised and there was a lot less disruption. It was noticeable that people do not want to come to work and cross that barrier. Whether on the day or the stigma afterwards, they do not feel comfortable.

Q 190

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

This is a question to the TaxPayers Alliance. I know from my previous employment that your organisation is well-versed in freedom of information. In relation to facility time, what do you consider to be a trade union duty and what do you consider to be a trade union activity? When you have done research into facility time, have you been able to establish how many trade union activists have had either part or all of their salary paid by a trade union?

In terms of check-off, why is it correct that public sector employees—even those who would be in a staff association—can pay council tax, rent and charitable donations via check-off, but not a trade union?

My last question goes back to the taxpayers and the democratic mandate. If a political party has been elected in a devolved Administration or a public authority and it has a democratic mandate to carry out good industrial relations by providing check-off, either charitable or free, or good facility time, who is anybody to interfere in that? Surely, it has the democratic mandate and the taxpayer has made that decision.

Jonathan Isaby: There are quite a few points there. You talked about the difference between activities and duties. Those things are defined, are they not? ACAS has defined them and our most recent report quotes exactly what they are.

Q 191

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

Have you specifically asked employers what duties and activities are in a major freedom of information request?

Jonathan Isaby: No. I am not sure of the wording of the exact request that we put in, but the difference is that employees can take paid time off for duties, while the time off for activities is unpaid. What we are concerned about is the paid time off when it is taxpayer-funded time that is being used.

Obviously, in that respect, we are talking here about duties rather than activities, although this comes back to the point that we uncovered. I think I am right in saying that it was 344 public sector bodies, of which 154 were local authorities, 122 were NHS trusts and 37 were quangos, that either did not record facility time or only recorded it partially. That comes back to the whole issue that this Bill is seeking to address: it is unclear how much additional subsidy unions are getting and whether time is being spent on activities rather than duties,  which is absolutely not what the current law envisages. That is why it is right that the law should be seeking to better define this.

Q 192

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

But you are making an allegation—I want to be clear about your answer—that in the public sector what is being allowed to happen is that activities that should be unpaid are being paid. Is that what you are alleging?

Jonathan Isaby: We do not know. The fact that so many bodies—literally hundreds of public sector bodies—are not properly recording this means that we have no idea. They are not recording it. Therefore, I think the Bill is absolutely right to be saying that this should be recorded properly, so that there can be proper accountability and knowledge that there is absolutely no abuse going on.

Q 193

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

So have you established that the trade unions make a contribution to employees on facility time?

Jonathan Isaby: Obviously, trade unions have people that they employ and they are not solely funded by the taxpayer, but there is clearly a big subsidy here.

Q 194

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

Trade unions give money to public sector employers for some trade union activists who are on facility time, usually in cases of full-time facility time. You have not been able to establish that?

Jonathan Isaby: I do not know off the top of my head the extent of that; I do not know is the honest, quick answer.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Mr Isaby, in the context of the request that I made for Committee members, when you submit material could you also submit a paragraph or two on your view on that and how you arrive at those estimates or projections? If you can do that, it would be helpful to members of the Committee.

Jonathan Isaby: Yes, happily.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Mr Stephens, are you finished, or do you—?

Q 195

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

I asked questions that I do not think I have got an answer to, in terms of check-off, and obviously the taxpayer and who represents the taxpayer in the democratic mandate.

Jonathan Isaby: If there was a check-off, I simply do not think that it is for the public sector—that is, a taxpayer-funded employer—to organise its employees’ memberships of any organisation, whether that be a trade union, a political party, the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, or whatever it might be. It is a private decision that people need to make. With direct debits and banking these days really making these things very easy for individuals to handle, there is no justification for that to be done by the employer.

Q 196

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

Surely, it is a contractual obligation. Have you established that in many public sector bodies there is a contractual obligation between the employee and the employer to have a check-off?

Jonathan Isaby: I simply do not accept that there should be. It is not the role of the public sector—whether it be a Government Department or a local council—to organise those things.

Q 197

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

That might be your view, but surely if a public body that is democratically elected has decided to put that in individual employees’ contracts, who are we to argue with that?

Jonathan Isaby: I think you are to disagree because you are the Parliament of this country, and if you change the law and say that you can no longer do that, then that will stand, surely?

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

I think we will move on.

Q 198

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

Mr Wilson, I have a question for you. One of the things that the Bill will do is to put in place a four-month ballot mandate for industrial action. I think we have heard earlier today that industrial action has been called on ballots that were two years previous, so there ought to be a meaningful change. I would be interested to know how that would impact your business, and how you think about your population of employees and how that changes over the time, and whether this would be a helpful or sensible measure.

Tony Wilson: I think it is a very appropriate measure. Going back to the incident of the strike in January and February, the ballot for that was prior to Christmas, in December 2014. We are still not out of the woods on that. The action has not been called off; it is not over. There have been numerous discussions in the intervening period. We have a turnover rate of 14% or 15% per annum in our bus driver workforce, so by now, the workforce is very different to the one that actually balloted. Clearly, there could be other people who would come in and vote in the same direction, but it is not right to say that the same populace that voted the first time is there today; it simply is not.

I think it is appropriate that ballots run out of time. Purely from a fairness to proportionality perspective, to have a refreshed vote with a new look by the people who are in employment at the time and are now going to be affected by it seems perfectly appropriate to me. I do not think the unions themselves—I do not think Unite would see that as a particular barrier. I think they recognise that even if the legislation changes in the way set out, they will just have to try a bit harder to mobilise their workforce, and they are very effective at that. I do not know that in practice, things will actually change too much. I think they will get more people voting, personally, and we will have a slightly different scenery.

Q 199

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

In your answer to a previous question from a colleague on the Committee, you made great play of the collection of information. Would you accept that for the local authorities or other public bodies that do not do that, there will be a cost to the taxpayer from collecting that information?

Jonathan Isaby: In terms of the amount of time?

Q 200

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

It is a straightforward yes or no answer.

Jonathan Isaby: Clearly.

Q 201

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Thank you. In your figures, which you quoted earlier, what percentage of trade union income are you implying comes from the taxpayer?

Jonathan Isaby: I do not know the total trade union income across the UK, so I cannot tell you what that is as a percentage.

Q 202

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Well, it is very publicly available. It is the most transparent money in politics and campaigning, so I would have thought you would have looked up what percentage it is.

Jonathan Isaby: I do not know off the top of my head what that number is, but I do know that £108 million-plus a year is a large chunk of taxpayers’ money.

Q 203

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

So you are making a lot of assumptions despite not knowing all the facts. What grants were you referring to that trade unions get?

Jonathan Isaby: As I said to Sir Alan, I will happily give you the specifics on that. In terms of direct payments to trade unions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills gave the TUC £20 million in 2012-13.

Q 204

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Can I just interrupt? You specifically said that trade unions receive grants. I am not aware of any grants that trade unions receive. I think you will find the BIS figure is to do with the contracts that were won regarding trade union learning, which was something that lots of organisations applied for and deliver a service for. What grants do trade unions gain from the Government or the taxpayer? I am a taxpayer, as are many trade union members.

Jonathan Isaby: I presume they all are. We are all taxpayers. They are amounts of money that have been given to trade unions—

Q 205

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Yes, but you specifically referred to grants. Are you aware of any grants that trade unions receive or did you use the wrong word?

Jonathan Isaby: I do not know how you want to define the word “grant”, but I am talking about amounts of money that are handed directly to trade unions from public sector bodies, quangos, local authorities and Government Departments.

Q 206

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Can I take from that that you are not aware of any grants that trade unions actually receive? A grant is something applied for and given. Are you aware of any grants that trade unions receive from the taxpayer?

Jonathan Isaby: Any grant given to a body would have to be something where you have to account for how it is spent, so it is a grant in that sense.

Q 207

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

But are you aware of any grants?

Jonathan Isaby: It depends whether we are disagreeing about the definition of “grant”. I am talking about money being given to trade unions from these bodies.

Q 208

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

So you are not referring to grants. Can we move on to your big bugbear of the afternoon, which is facility time? You seem to have a real problem with that. Would you accept that any  agreements on facility time are made directly between employers or their representatives and employees or their representatives?

Jonathan Isaby: Yes.

Q 209

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

That is therefore working in both people’s interests. The employer, whether it be public sector or anyone else, and the employee or their representative body, the trade union, are happy and come to that agreement freely, without anyone putting pressure on them to do so. They want to make that agreement because they think it works in both people’s interests.

Jonathan Isaby: It may well work in both people’s interests, but at what cost? An important point to raise—

Q 210

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

No, I am asking whether you would agree that that is the situation.

Jonathan Isaby: Clearly it is agreed by both sides, but I should point out that the amount spent in the public sector on facility time is three and a half times the amount in the private sector. There is clearly an imbalance there. We have always said that we should be seeking to get the amount spent by the public sector in the same proportion as it is in the private sector.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Well, all I can say is that my anecdotal evidence—actually, most of what you are talking about is anecdotal evidence—as a trade union official for 12 years is that there are as many people on full-time or partial release in the private sector as there are in the public sector. That is my experience. I cannot back it up with factual information, but you cannot back up what you are saying with factual information.

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)

I am sorry, but we have now had three separate sessions where Opposition Members have asked about 17 questions in a row. We have had a grave imbalance in the questioning. The Committee is meant to be impartial in its questioning and evenly balanced between Government and Opposition. I have not taken any of the Committee’s time to ask questions in this entire sitting, nor do I intend to, but I do intend to insist that there is a balance between Government and Opposition.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

May I say to the Minister that if he goes back in the report of this sitting, he will see that I switch from speaker to speaker and side to side, and that I only switch to the other side when a Member stops asking questions? It is not a question of the Opposition getting too much time. They are asking the questions, and your side, Minister, are not asking questions in the same numbers. I do, however, admit that it is time on this particular portion. Mr Isaby has promised to put forward all the information to members of the Committee in written form. We have dealt with how much we can deal with today. We still have two or three Members to call. I call Mr Cartlidge.

Q 211

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

Thank you, Sir Alan. The key thing for me, Mr Wilson, is that you are clearly at the coalface of all this. You have experienced what it is like running a firm with major industrial issues and disputes.  I am interested to hear you talk about having harmonious relations with Unite. In your opinion, will the key measures in the Bill in any way worsen or be likely to worsen industrial relations at your firm?

Tony Wilson: I do not think so. I have had discussions with our regional officer about before and after and what will make the difference. I think what I said about them just trying harder is absolutely true. What I have noticed over my years—many, many years now—is that it is the incidents of postal ballot that have gone up, and not necessarily the strike action. That is where we have faced more threat, in the softest terms. There is more likelihood that the workforce will go to the postal ballot. They will not necessarily go to strike action.

The only two strikes that we have faced in the London bus market have been over the Olympics and the sector-wide collective bargaining. If our business had voted on its own, there would not have been strike action on either of those issues in reality. I do not think our harmonious relationship will be affected by the Bill; we will just have a fairer process for the workforce at large in reality.

Q 212

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

I have a question for Mr Isaby. Basically, are you aware that large private sector companies use check-off quite regularly?

Jonathan Isaby: Yes, of course, but that is their affair. They are private companies, so it is not taxpayers’ money.

Q 213

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

Are you aware that companies such as Tata and other large industrial companies use it?

Jonathan Isaby: Yes.

Q 214

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

Mr Wilson’s company, Abellio, is a private-sector company that provides a public service. Would it be counted under your logic as liable or able to use check-off?

Jonathan Isaby: I think it is a very interesting area, which TPA is keen to look at. You have private-sector bodies delivering using taxpayers’ money. This gets into the realms of freedom of information. Organisations that are spending taxpayers’ money should be subject to similar rules and standards as in the public sector.

Q 215

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

A final question, just so that the Government Whip does not get too irate. Mr Wilson—Mr Isaby, you can give your response as well—commercially, would you prefer to deal with one central voice that represents a collective bargaining unit or undergo individual consultation with every single employee?

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Order. Just before we finish, Mr Argar, you can ask a quick question, which can be replied to in writing, but please keep it brief.

Q 216

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

That is what I was going to offer with your permission, Sir Alan. The question is to Mr Wilson. You touched on the 2014 dispute and ballot with Unite. Can you remind us what percentage of Unite members voted to significantly disrupt the working and daily lives of huge numbers of Londoners? I am happy for you to write if you do not have this to hand.  Do you have any estimate of how many Londoners’ and others’ journeys were affected by that action over those two days?

Tony Wilson: For the second point, I would ask Transport for London, because it will give you the answer across the whole network, not just for our organisation.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

I was thinking about your firm’s services in particular.

Tony Wilson: I do not know. We are 7% of the market—

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Order. I am bringing this session to a conclusion now. For the last two questions, I would be grateful if you could submit written answers if you wish. Also, Mr Isaby, you could put together your paper of queries and forward that on to the Clerks or the Members directly. We will now suspend the sitting for five minutes to get the video link ready. Thank you very much, Mr Isaby and Mr Wilson. We are grateful for your attendance today.

Sitting suspended.