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Examination of Witnesses

Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:22 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Roseanna Cunningham and Grahame Smith gave evidence.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield 4:37 pm, 13th October 2015

We are very grateful to you for coming online for this session of the Committee. Would you like to introduce yourself and state your position for the record?

Roseanna Cunningham: I am Roseanna Cunningham, MSP. I am the Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

What we are going to do is introduce Members to ask questions and then you will reply to those questions with your answers. [ Interruption. ] Thank you very much indeed, Minister, for staying with us. Technology, at times, is a bugger. I know that that will go on record, anyway. What we are going to do is to put questions to you from Members, and then hopefully you will give us the answers and we will hear them.

Roseanna Cunningham: Yes, I can.

Q 227

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

Fantastic. I will ask you a similar question to the one I have just asked the Welsh Government Minister. Given the quite clear constitutional implications of the Bill cutting across the devolution settlement in terms of issues and services that are provided by the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and others, what consultation did the UK Government have with you about the Bill, and what consultation have they had with you during the process? I know that concerns have been raised.

Roseanna Cunningham: I am not aware of there being any formal consultation in advance of the introduction of the Bill. While I have had some correspondence backwards and forwards with the relevant Minister, there has not really been much in the way of a discussion and we are still trying to establish exactly how it would impact on us. We share a lot of the concerns that the Welsh Minister expressed to you.

Q 228

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

I do not expect you to share the detail of this, but have you taken legal advice from your own counsels and legal advice team on the implications of the Bill?

Roseanna Cunningham: We are looking at that, because we feel that it ought to require an LCM—sorry, a legislative consent motion—given the extent of the interference in what are clearly devolved policy areas. We are looking closely at that, and, yes, it will involve taking some legal advice, but I am obviously not going to share it.

Q 229

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

On the constitutional point, given that industrial relations are reserved—they are a UK matter—is it not the case that any industrial legislation that comes out from any Government of any type and that potentially affects public services will have ramifications for devolved areas?

Roseanna Cunningham: You are reaching right into the operations of our Government and, in fact, into a significant policy area for us as well. You will have heard the title of my job, which is fair work, skills and training, and that ought to tell you something about the approach that we are trying to take in Scotland, throughout the work that we do. It principally means the way in which we behave as a devolved Administration in terms of our own employment, our relationships with our employees and the way in which we conduct our business. This is now directly reaching into, and attempting to change, the way in which we conduct our business.

Q 230

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

But with respect, Mr Doughty raised a constitutional point and I am simply asking whether you accept that industrial relations is a reserved matter? [ Interruption. ]

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Thank you for bearing with us, Minister.

Roseanna Cunningham: I think that I probably said what I wanted to say.

Q 231

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

I had better ask the question again. Do you accept that industrial relations—trade unions matters—are reserved for the United Kingdom Government?

Roseanna Cunningham: They are currently reserved, but we consider that the effect of this is such that it should require an LCM and we are taking advice on that.

Q 232

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

Okay, but the impact is on public services such as schools, which have been devolved. We accept that. But do you not have a concern, therefore, in relation to schools? Admittedly the statistics I have are for England and I am sorry about that, but we have had school closures in England on ballots with relatively small turnouts, such as 25%. Would that be of concern to you?

Roseanna Cunningham: I cannot speak to the industrial relations record that exists in England. I can speak only to the industrial relations record that exists in Scotland, and that is not happening in Scotland. In fact, we have a better industrial relations record here than in any other part of the United Kingdom, with the lowest number of days lost to industrial disputes. I would argue that that is the way we conduct our business here, and have done since 2007. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. What we are concerned about is the negative impact that this Bill will have on relationships in Scotland, in an area where we are making a far better impact than there appears to be south of the border.

Roseanna Cunningham: Yes I can. I cannot see you, but I can hear you.

Roseanna Cunningham: He is sitting beside me.

Q 233

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

I will ask you a question first from the STUC point of view. Can you outline for the Committee what discussions the STUC has had with the Scotland Office on the Trade Union Bill? Do you have specific concerns in relation to check-off and facility time?

Grahame Smith: Perhaps I should introduce myself, given that Members may not know who I am. I am the general secretary of the Scottish TUC. I have had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State at the Scotland Office to discuss a variety of things, among which was the Trade Union Bill.

Q 234

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis Conservative, Banbury

Presumably, you do not think that industrial relations should be an English, Welsh and Scottish issue. You think they should be devolved.

Roseanna Cunningham: Yes, I do think they should be devolved. I would offer as evidence the different industrial relations picture here from what is happening south of the border.

Q 235

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis Conservative, Banbury

And there was a great deal of discussion about this before the devolution settlement, was there not, and Smith came down in favour of them not being devolved?

Roseanna Cunningham: That does not change my position though. My position is that in an ideal world, they would be devolved. One reason why I am arguing for that is because, quite apart from anything else, there is a different relationship in Scotland. To have our relationship adversely affected by what is going through the Westminster Parliament is unfortunate to say the least.

Q 236

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis Conservative, Banbury

But the fact is that they are not a devolved issue.

Roseanna Cunningham: The fact is that you are choosing not to listen to what I have to say about the different relationship within Scotland, in terms of industrial relations, and why, in our view, it would be preferable if this Bill simply did not apply to Scotland.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Thank you very much for sticking with us through this very tumultuous experience.

Q 237

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Climate Justice)

Can I ask the STUC—I hope you can hear me—about your views on whether or not industrial relations should be a devolved matter?

Grahame Smith: The position of the Scottish TUC on industrial relations and the major employment protections is that they should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. We believe that that would fulfil the pledge that was given in the so-called extensive devolution agreement, or devolution settlement. Given the major powers to be devolved to Scotland under the Smith commission proposals, including powers over employability, various tax powers and other powers that impact on economic development, it would make sense, in our  view, to have powers on employment protection to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament to give us that meaningful and clear devolution settlement. Our concerns about the Bill are about its impact on workers and trade union members across the whole of Britain. The members of our Scottish Trades Union Congress represent members across Britain and are concerned about the impact that this Bill and its proposals will have on all the members of our affiliated trade unions.

Q 238

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Climate Justice)

Do you have any particular concerns regarding check-off?

Grahame Smith: We are concerned about the Bill in its entirety. First, we are concerned about the lack of scrutiny by Parliament over the arrangements for check-off. It seems to me unacceptable and, in fact, pretty dangerous and damaging that Ministers in Westminster can, for example, determine whether check-off arrangements apply to public services in Scotland. In many respects these are contractual matters that are agreed between unions and employers in the public services in Scotland.

Check-off and facility time arrangements are an investment made by public service employers in stable and effective industrial relations. They contribute towards the provision of quality public services and stable relations between employers and unions. Any proposal to remove check-off arrangements or reduce the amount of facility time—that is, time that workplace reps can spend representing their members, working constructively with public service employers to address the range of challenges faced by public service employers and workers in Scotland—seems to me to be not only wrong-headed but, as I said earlier, particularly damaging and against the spirit not only of devolution in Scotland and Wales but decentralisation in England. To require local authorities to abandon check-off arrangements is certainly not consistent with the devolution of power to a local level to allow local authorities to be responsive to the needs of their local communities, including their local workforces.

Q 239

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

Thank you both for your time. You spoke earlier about the good state of industrial relations in Scotland. With that backdrop, if a national strike in Scotland was called with only 20% turnout and a ballot that was two years out of date, would you consider that fair to the ordinary families up and down the country trying to get their kids to school or to get to work?

Roseanna Cunningham: Who is that question to?

Roseanna Cunningham: The point I am making is that the situation in Scotland is such that I would be pretty close to being able to say that we would not allow it to get to that position in the first place. Reaching that position would be a catastrophic failure. We should be ensuring through all the practices—including things such as check-off and facility time—that the proper time is afforded to ensure that the relationship between employer and employee and trade union works effectively so that you do not get into that position.

Grahame Smith: The proposals for facility time and check-off raise the possibility of unfortunate conflict and disagreement in our public services. I would simply point to the statement that was made by the Conservative councillor who is the HR spokesperson for the Convention  of Scottish Local Authorities. He said that he was opposed to the proposals on check-off and facility time for public services, including local authorities. He said that the current arrangements work well for the employer and the trade unions and that

“the costs…are already covered by direct contributions from the trade unions”.

On whether industrial action is legitimate, if a ballot is a measure of legitimacy, I suggest that a number of councillors and Members of the European Parliament would not pass that legitimacy test. On whether a ballot indicates a significant level of support, unions take into account not only the outcome of the ballot, including the majority or the turnout, but union workplace reps know the views of their local members and the feeling of the workforce. A union would not call a strike if it was not confident of the support of the workforce.

On disruption in public services, when I talk to our members, not only are there those who work in public services, but our members are users of public services. Their concerns about the problems in public services are not about strike action. There are very few strikes in public services across the UK and very few in Scotland. They are concerned about underfunding and the lack of investment in staff and staff training, and about the impact of austerity and the pressure that that has on staff who deliver quality public services. That is much more of an issue that needs to be addressed rather than the proposals in the Bill that, frankly, have no evidence base and are questionable in terms of their democratic legitimacy.

Q 240

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee

I wonder whether I could also pose the question about check-off and facility time to the Minister. Do you expect the Government’s proposals to apply to the public sector in Scotland? Do you believe that there are any mutually beneficial elements coming from check-off and facility time for both employees and employers in the public sector in Scotland?

Roseanna Cunningham: We value both. We consider that the investment in facility time pays you back in terms of the handling of issues and problems before they get to become major disputes. That is an extremely important aspect of the relationship that we have within the public sector in Scotland. On check-off, we can understand what the problem—[Interruption.]

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Thank you, Minister. Did you conclude your answer?

Roseanna Cunningham: Pretty much. There was a phrase at the end that I suspect you did not hear, but I am fairly sure that the members of your Committee understand the position that we are taking on both check-off and facility time. We do not see the need for—

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

As you know, Minister, the future is often difficult.

Q 241

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

I have one last question for the Minister. Looking at clause 9, the provisions on picketing have implications for police officers and police involvement in picketing. Policing is another area that is wholly devolved to Scotland. What conversations have you had with your ministerial colleagues and representatives of the police in Scotland about the provisions, including whether they put the police in an invidious position regarding involvement in industrial disputes?

Roseanna Cunningham: I certainly think that this is a situation that the police do not want to find themselves in. I have had some brief conversations with relevant colleagues. One of our difficulties is with the way that the Bill is drafted. So much is so uncertain at this point that we are almost having to wait and see until regulations appear to discover the practical outcomes of some of what is being vaguely suggested. We have some concern that what is being proposed will be simply exacerbate the situation, rather than help to calm it down. I cannot repeat often enough that if this is fixing a problem, I do not know where that problem is. It is certainly not a problem in Scotland.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Minister and Mr Smith, we are very grateful to you for sticking with us through all the difficulties that we had today. It has been extremely useful and we will send you up a copy of all the minutes that we put together about this session. Thank you.

Roseanna Cunningham: Thank you.

Grahame Smith: Thank you.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Stephen Barclay.)

Adjourned till Thursday 15 October at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

TUB 01 Dr Charles Umney

TUB 02 Todd Bailey

TUB 03 James Jeavons

TUB 04 Society of Radiographers

TUB 05 Stuart Seaman

TUB 06 UNITE

TUB 07 Royal College of Midwives

TUB 08 Welsh Local Government Association

TUB 09 Leeds City Council

TUB 10 Trades Union Congress (TUC)

TUB 11 The TaxPayers Alliance

TUB 12 Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT)

TUB 13 Cllr. Simon Blackburn, Leader of Blackpool Council

TUB 14 UNISON

TUB 15 City of Wolverhampton Council

TUB 16 GMB

TUB 17 ASLEF

TUB 18 Community

TUB 19 Vera Baird QC, Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria

TUB 20 Royal College of Nursing

TUB 21 Professor Keith Ewing

TUB 22 Thompsons Solicitors LLP

TUB 23 CBI

TUB 24 London HR Directors Network

TUB 25 NASUWT, The Teachers’ Union

TUB 26 British Medical Association (BMA)