Examination of Witness

Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:16 pm on 13 October 2015.

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Leighton Andrews AM gave evidence.

Q 217

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

We now hear oral evidence from the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Scottish TUC via video link. For this session we have until 5 o’clock. Of course, Members know that we are at the mercy of technology. I warn Members that, not only in the House of Commons but everywhere, technology often fails, so if it does please bear with us—we will figure a way out. I aim to start with Cardiff and suggest that we divide the time equally between the witnesses. Do we have contact with the Welsh Minister?

Leighton Andrews: Good afternoon, Sir Alan.

Q 218

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Will you introduce yourself for the record?

Leighton Andrews: I am Leighton Andrews, the Minister for Public Services.

Q 219

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

Leighton, it is Stephen Doughty, speaking for the Opposition. Croeso. I have here the 9 September statement from the Welsh Government in the name of the First Minister, which very clearly states that the Welsh Government believe

“that significant elements of the Bill relate specifically to public services which in Wales are unambiguously devolved responsibilities. I therefore do not accept the suggestion that the Bill must be regarded as concerned exclusively with non-devolved issues.”

It seems very obvious to me where this sits in relation to health, education of under-17s, fire and a number of other potential areas. You have a range of concerns, so will you elaborate on where you feel the Bill breaches the devolution settlement? Given the First Minister’s statement, will you outline what consultation was undertaken between UK Government Ministers and Welsh Government Ministers?

Leighton Andrews: Well, I suppose our starting point would be, what problem is the Bill seeking to solve? We believe that the Bill contrasts sharply with the constructive social partnerships brokered in Wales. We have good relationships with the trade unions. We value our workforce and believe that they contribute proactively to the development of strong public services.

The First Minister communicated with the Minister in charge of the Bill in Westminster via letter on, I think, the day the Bill was published. The First Minister subsequently wrote a long, detailed letter to the Prime Minister outlining our concerns, as a Government, with the Bill. Those concerns, as you rightly say, reflect the fact that the Bill addresses devolved public services—health, the fire service, education under 17 and potentially other areas, such as some transport staff. Clearly, under the devolution settlement, it is for us to make policy in respect of education under 17, health, fire and rescue, and so on.

The First Minister’s letter to the Prime Minister also raised a fundamental constitutional issue in respect of our right to defend legitimate devolved interests. He said in that letter that we have great concerns that the nature of the Bill would cut across the devolution settlement, which is of great concern to us. We recently received a short reply from the Prime Minister, but we do not regard it as dealing with the key issues that we set out.

Q 220

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

Have you had specific replies on the issues—particularly check-off—that have been raised as concerns?

Leighton Andrews: UK Government Ministers have not yet written to the Welsh Government about proposals on check-off. We know, of course, that the UK Government made a statement in August, subsequent to the introduction of the Bill, that they are planning to take forward proposals on check-off. They are of great concern to public service employers as well as trade unions in Wales. Indeed, those issues were discussed at our workforce partnership council only last Thursday. Public service employers in local government, the health service and, indeed, the further education sector expressed their discontent with the Bill. As I say, we have not formally heard from the UK Government in respect of check-off yet.

Q 221

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

Lastly, the UK Government clearly have form on this. You will recall, of course, the case that was before the Supreme Court regarding the Agricultural Wages Board. What is the Welsh Government’s wider experience of the UK Government’s legislating on matters that are devolved and have been found to be so by the courts?

Leighton Andrews: Well, I think you raise an important issue. Obviously, the judgment of the Supreme Court in respect of the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill confirmed that, provided an Assembly Bill fairly or realistically satisfies the tests set out in section 108 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, it does not matter whether it might also be capable of being classified as relating to a subject that has not been devolved, such as employment rights and industrial relations.

The policy background of the explanatory notes to the Bill sets the context of the Bill in respect of essential public services. That, of course, takes us into public  services that are devolved, such as the ones we have discussed. There is a clear divergence in approach to delivering public services between England and Wales, and we think the proposals in the Bill, far from protecting public services, will be more likely to provoke confrontation.

We also find it somewhat odd that a UK Government Bill of this kind seeks to specify, for example, how much union facility time employees have saved local authorities in Wales. We have been going through, for example, a local government reform programme, which might not be supported by trade unions in local government. Their access to facility time will be a very important element for us in ensuring harmonious relations with the workforce as our reform programme goes ahead.

Q 222

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

I hope you can hear me okay. We took evidence earlier from Mr Wilson, who operates more than 700 buses. He stated that on a ballot turnout of 12%, two days’ industrial action was called. The 12% of people requesting industrial action may no longer be involved in his company now, because the decision was taken much earlier in the year. You spoke about schools earlier, and we also discussed the fact that on a 25% turnout in 2011, 62% of England’s schools were closed. I wonder what you think is a decent turnout for a ballot, considering that we are talking about accountability and transparency, and about making sure that the voice of every individual who is a member of a union is heard.

Leighton Andrews: I am sorry if you have had problems with strike action in England’s schools, of course, but let me say that in Wales we have been very successful in reaching agreements with trades unions that have avoided the need for strike action. For example, in respect of the firefighters’ dispute over pensions, we reached a solution and the Fire Brigades Union put off strike action in Wales. In respect of junior doctors, the British Medical Association’s advice has confirmed that the ballot for industrial action will not be taken in Wales. In respect of the agenda for change in the health service, the inclusive approach that we adopted led to the acceptance and successful application of a two-year pay deal in Wales, avoiding the threat of industrial action. In respect of education, we had constructive discussions with the trades unions and avoided the rolling strike action that was due to take place in Wales in 2013, while strike action was taking place in England.

So I suppose I go back to my opening comment: what is the problem that the Bill is seeking to address? The reality as far as we can see is that we have good relationships with trades unions in Wales and with our workforce. We have good relationships with public service employers in Wales and with our workforce. Public service employers in Wales do not support the Bill and do not see the need for it.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Minister, before you go on any more, there are still three Members seeking to ask questions. I would ask you to be a bit more succinct. After this next question, I may see whether I can take all those three questions together, which might help you be as succinct as possible.

Q 223

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

One of the points that Mr Wilson raised about the 12% ballot calling for industrial action where he worked was that other members who wished to come into work felt intimidated. You talk about  good industrial relations, which is what we all want to see, but there is also a feeling that when a minority of people has asked for industrial action, that has put pressure on other employees in a workplace who could not go into work that day or who felt intimidated. That is one point that Mr Wilson raised. I will go back to my original question: do you think that a turnout of 12% or even of 25% is representative of all the workers in a workplace?

Leighton Andrews: Well, I think that you would want the maximum turnout that you can achieve. I do not know Mr Wilson or the circumstances of that dispute. The point I am seeking to make here is that we are dealing with a matter that we regard as a fundamental constitutional question. This Bill seeks to impose conditions on Wales in public services that are devolved, where we have a responsibility to deliver public services. There is a major constitutional question at stake here. This is not a matter that we feel is going to improve industrial relations in Wales. It is not going to improve industrial relations within our public services; nor do we believe, at the outset, that there is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Minister, I am going to take three questions together now.

Q 224

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Opposition Whip (Commons)

In response to Stephen Doughty’s previous question about the Welsh Government’s previous challenges to things like the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill, can I ask you—without expecting you to reveal the content—to confirm whether you have sought advice from the Counsel General about the Trade Union Bill and its potential breach of the devolution settlement?

Q 225

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis Conservative, Banbury

My question ties in quite well. It was held by the court that the agricultural wages case concerned agriculture. There is no way that this Bill could possibly be concerned with anything other than employment and industrial relations. It was argued that the agricultural wages case concerned wages but it clearly did not: the court held that it concerned agriculture. This is quite different, is it not?

Q 226

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

Have you had any discussions with your counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland about the measures in the Bill and their application?

Leighton Andrews: I start by saying that I am not in front of this Committee to divulge any conversations that have been held with our own legal advisers in respect of our position as a Government. We will reach our own conclusion as to whether this Bill from the UK Government requires a legislative consent motion. That is something we are currently considering.

In respect of the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill, I think we need to be clear about that Bill. It went beyond what was said by the questioner. What it confirmed in that case was that where an Assembly Bill fairly and realistically satisfies the test set out in section 108 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and is not within an exception, it does not matter whether it might also be capable of being classified as relating to a subject that has not been devolved, such as employment rights and industrial relations. The Trade Union Bill very clearly relates to devolved public services—that is the three obvious ones: fire and rescue, health and, of course,  education under 17, but potentially others as well. This clearly cuts across the devolution settlement, and we have very strong issues that we will be raising in that regard.

In respect of relations with Scotland and Northern Ireland, officials certainly have had contact with Scottish Government officials. The legal situation in Northern Ireland is slightly different from that in respect of Scotland and Wales, but I think that there is considerable unease among the devolved Administrations about this Bill.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Thank you very much for your time, Minister. You are obviously a very busy man. We will now move on from you to the Scottish Minister.