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Examination of Witnesses

Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 15th October 2015.

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Deputy Chief Constable Charlie Hall and Steve White gave evidence.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 11:31 am, 15th October 2015

Our two witnesses are Steve White, who is chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, and Deputy Chief Constable Charlie Hall of the National Police Chiefs Council. You are both very welcome.

Q 242242

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

Good morning and welcome to the witnesses. There is a serious number of provisions in this Bill, particularly in relation to picketing. One of the consultation documents contains proposals on supervising social media comments and potential criminalisation, although we are not clear on the Government’s position on those issues. Do you believe that there are problems with the way in which the Bill could be policed and the additional stresses and strains it would place on policing, which is obviously already subject to significant pressures?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: In the majority of cases, there is no real need for the police to be involved with industrial disputes and picketing. Indeed, our stance is that we would wish to avoid it if we can. Many pickets and industrial disputes run without any contact or involvement with policing. Clearly, there are occasions when police have been, and need to be, involved to keep the peace and prevent disorder. There are provisions in the Bill for police to be notified of picket lines, and my reading of that is that, in pretty much every instance, we would be notified of industrial disputes and picketing. My position is that I do not see that as absolutely necessary, simply because we would expect those picket lines to be self-policing as far as possible. Involvement of police beyond that should be the exception, rather than the rule.

On social media, I have seen some detail in the Bill about that. I do not believe that there is a need for the police to be able to vet or censor social media posts. Clearly, there may be a role for policing at some point.  If things are posted that commit criminal offences, we would investigate in the same way that we would investigate other social media posts.

Q 243

Steve White: Yes, broadly. There needs to be a recognition of what is practically possible in terms of the level of resource that we currently have, particularly on the social media aspect—goodness gracious me. I am on Twitter, and I sometimes wish that perhaps we did have the powers to deal with social media comments from time to time, but, goodness me, that would be massively complex. From a policing perspective, it would be a dangerous route to start going down if we say that the police should have a role to play in that.

Of course, the relationship between local police officers and employees of local firms is key and crucial to this. It would be a travesty if we ended up going back to the days of the 1970s and ’80s when, whether rightly or wrongly, the police service was seen as an arm of the state, which of course we absolutely are not. I certainly echo Charlie’s comments that these disputes should be largely self-policing.

The only other comment that I would like to make is about the requirement to inform police in relation to picket supervisors, for example. I question that. I mean, it is not for the Police Federation to say what laws there are in the country, of course. However, I personally question whether there would be more appropriate ways for that information to be recorded, so that the police absolutely do not have to be involved at all, apart from keeping the peace when necessary. Perhaps local authorities could play a part in that more appropriately. And of course, the sad fact of the matter is that we are now seeing increasing mission creep, whereby the police service has to step in where other services are providing gaps. So we do not want to design something that brings that about, when perhaps there are more appropriate agencies to do that work.

Q 244

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

Given what you have said, do you both think that there is a risk that with some of the provisions—particularly those about being able to demand letters, anyone being able to demand a letter, the wearing of armbands and all sorts of stuff—that if things got out of hand, they could draw the police into situations where multiple people demand things? As you say, preferably, the police should stay out of these situations. Do you think that there is potentially a risk of a breakdown in order around protests that otherwise would have been conducted and self-policed, as you have described?

Steve White: The point is that if there is a requirement for a notification to be made to the police, what happens when that does not happen and how do you know if it has not happened? Presumably, the police will have to investigate that. That is the issue. Otherwise, there is no point in having that requirement; it is about enforcement.

I think that it is justified for us to have a view in relation to the practicalities of enforcement, because we are the ones who are charged with enforcing the laws. So I think it is right for us to be able to comment on that. My question is: what would the sanction be? Then,  of course, immediately you will drag the police service into other aspects, which I am not convinced is the intention of the Bill. It is the mission creep element.

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I think that my response to the question would be “possibly”, but I would not over-emphasise that it will cause problems. When police need to attend picket lines, there is some utility in being able to identify who is supervising or in charge of that picket line; certainly, that would be helpful. But I do not believe that it is necessary to have notification directly to the police in advance of every picket line being set up, and that is simply because, as I have already said, I do not see us needing to attend in the vast majority of cases anyway. However, a mechanism by which we can easily identify who to speak to when we arrive would be of assistance.

Q 245

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

I have one last question. Would it be your opinion that, in a general sense, industrial relations and the involvement of the police have significantly improved over the last 10, 20 or 30 years, compared with some of the situations that we might have seen in the past, and that we do not want to jeopardise that type of relationship? I think it applies more broadly to the policing of protests, as well, that we have got to a very good situation and that we do not want to put that at risk.

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: Clearly, there is some history here, going back. The police role must be impartial in these industrial disputes, without doubt, and I would like to think that is the position that we have taken in recent years. I agree that that should be maintained. Our role there is to balance the lawful rights of all parties, and I would want to ensure that role continues.

Steve White: I would agree with that. In fact, before this session, I was reflecting—I have been a police officer for 27 years—and trying to remember the last time that we really had something of major significance. We were talking about the dispute involving petrol tanker drivers, and the amount of planning and the number of issues that we had to deal with then. That is probably the last time, but of course that was largely carried off in a very low-key and successful way, although there was a lot of resources and planning behind it, which I think shows how much things have improved.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Okay. I am already getting a list of people to ask questions, and we only have half an hour. You do not both need to answer questions unless you really want to, and I ask members of the Committee to try to limit themselves to one supplementary question, unless they are really bursting to ask another. I know that the next questioner will be very brief and to the point.

Q 246

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Thank you, Sir Edward. May I stay on the same subject? If a dispute gets out of hand, you are required to go and police it. Does the notice period in the Bill not give you advance warning, so you can tell whether policing is likely to be needed? I cannot see what the problem is with the notice period.

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I think my experience is that in past situations in which we have been required to be involved, or in which we planned to be involved, notification has usually come forward fairly quickly,  particularly through the employers, who say, “We believe that we may have issues when this picket line meets.” Those situations are relatively rare, in terms of when picket lines sit. Yes, of course notice helps us to plan, but my experience is that planning does not need to be done in the vast majority of cases, simply because of peaceful picketing. Steve talked about the planned fuel dispute. A lot of planning went into the ability to police picket lines at that time, and as you know, it never quite materialised into a dispute. Those are the sorts of circumstances where advance notice would be very helpful.

Q 247

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

May I follow up with one question? I am still struggling to see what harm the notice period causes.

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I do not believe it causes any harm, as such. The challenge for policing is whether it is necessary for us, how we then administer it within police forces across the country, and whether we could obtain that information in other ways, either through local authorities or directly with the employer. As I say, we do not see any direct harm in receiving it, but we feel it could be discharged in other ways.

Q 248

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

It may appear that I am shouting at you, but I am not; it is so the other members of the Committee can hear me. I apologise.

I have two quick questions. Do you both agree that the proposal to allow agency workers to come in and replace striking workers would result in increased tensions in the workplace and that the police would have to become more involved in those sorts of issues? What more resources would the police need to police some of the aspects in the Bill?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I do not think it is for the police service to determine the merits of whether agency workers should come in or not. We know from disputes we have policed in the past that the mention of agency workers tends to increase tension within picket lines. I think there is certainly the possibility that that could be the case if agency workers are brought in to cross picket lines. Clearly, within that we would need to judge each situation on its merits, and potentially we would need to increase police resourcing accordingly.

Steve White: It probably would not surprise you to hear me suggest that our current resource levels in policing would make it extremely—

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Mr White, you are talking to us.

Steve White: Sorry, let me try that again. You will not be surprised to hear that, from a federation perspective, we are saying that in terms of the resource requirement needed, we would find it very hard to cope with current resource levels should there be large-scale disputes. We are finding it extremely challenging to cope with day-to-day policing with the current resource levels, and the likelihood is that they are going to become squeezed even more. If there is an increased requirement for police involvement around the policing of industrial disputes, that would be more challenging.

Q 249

Steve White: I agree with Charlie’s view. It is not for us to give a view on that.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

As you are a main Opposition spokesman, Mr Stephens, if you want to have the same amount of time as Mr Doughty, I am very relaxed about it. Are you happy?

Q 250

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

Thank you for coming in today. I want to focus on the point about identification. Mr Hall, you said that it may be of benefit to be able to identify who to speak to and know who is the organiser. Is that not currently the case, in your experience of dealing with disputes?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I think it is generally the case that you can find out that detail, but I would not say it is always the case. Certainly, when we attend, our ability to find who is supervising the picket line and discuss and negotiate with them about the way the picket is conducted enables people to continue to cross the picket line if they wish to do so and enables those on the picket to approach vehicles or individuals trying to cross the picket line. It is always helpful if we can fairly quickly identify who that supervision is. Generally we can do it, but that is not always the case.

Q 251

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

To follow up, I am not trying to pass comment on whether the parts of the Bill that deal with social media are right or wrong, but you use social media for investigations at the moment. People can commit offences using social media. That is currently the case.

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: Yes, it is, and we certainly investigate, all across the country, offences that have allegedly been committed across social media. What we do not do is to censor or vet tweets and social media messages before they are sent out. Once things have gone out, however, we may investigate. Clearly, we could do that in an industrial dispute, as we could in any other area of business.

Q 252

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee

On social media, I do not think that this appears in the Bill, but it was certainly referred to in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills consultation document on the Bill. The consultation document referred to having to give notice of use of social media in support of a picket, and it referred to having to give notice of the content of social media used to support a picket. That concept is interesting, because if you have to give notice of content on Twitter, you potentially introduce the question of secondary and/or wildcat tweeting in support of picketing. Have you got any comments about that?

Steve White: Goodness gracious me. That fills me with dread and fear, I have to say, in terms of having to vet tweets in advance—crikey! I do not think that that is anything that we want to be getting involved with. I am sorry; I just find that quite bizarre.

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I think I agree. I do not know how we would manage that. I do not know that it is appropriate for us to do that, because we do not do it in any other area. How we would manage that, I really do not know. I think our only role would be when things have been sent out. If people are potentially committing a criminal offence by sending those out, there is a role, potentially, for us to investigate those, as there is with any other use of social media.

Q 253

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee

And there is law covering that sort of content anyway, is there not?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: Yes.

Q 254

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

You have both mentioned limited resources. I just want to ask you whether you think it is right that your limited resources are used to get involved in large-scale strikes in the country. Looking at the tube strikes, for example, do you think that it is right that police resources are used to manage the strikes when only a minority of people have asked for them in the first place?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: As Steve has already said, in policing we have got many priorities at the moment, and industrial disputes, if I am honest, are probably not at the top of the list of what we need to deploy resources against. What I would say is that we have a responsibility to keep the peace and uphold the law, and that can see us deployed into all sorts of different situations. Clearly, industrial dispute is one of those.

If there are industrial disputes where that role is necessary, then I would say that we will continue to need to deploy resources, but it does take resource away from other areas that I am sure all the police and crime commissioners around the country would consider to be our priorities, such as dealing with vulnerable people and reducing crime. This is not a natural area that falls into those priorities, but if we need to deploy resources to keep the peace, of course we will continue to do so.

Q 255

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

So you are being made to deploy resources from other incidents to manage strike action, when only a minority of people have asked for those strikes?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: It is inevitably going to do that. When we have a limited and reducing resource base, large-scale deployment of police to industrial disputes is going to pull officers from other duties and responsibilities.

Steve White: The only comment I would make is that a distinction needs to be made between managing an industrial dispute—in terms of who is in charge, informing the police and managing it—and responding to an incident of disorder. We would respond to an incident of disorder whether it is in relation to an industrial dispute or a pub fight. Of course, we have a duty to respond to that, and we need to ensure that we have got the resources in place to do that. As Charlie has already said, the desire would be for these industrial disputes to be self-policing. If they are not, we are going to need resources and we do not have them.

Q 256

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

So you would have to deploy resources from elsewhere. You mentioned industrial disputes being self-policing, and you also mentioned, Chief Constable, that it would be easier if you were able to identify individuals who might be in charge if you came across a scenario. Wearing an armband would be one easy way to identify people, would it not?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: Quite possibly.

Q 257

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

And you do not think that is detrimental to their human rights—having to wear an arm band?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I think that is probably for others to decide. I think what I have said is that when we attend being able to find out fairly quickly who is in charge and responsible for that picket is helpful to us. So there are many different ways I think that could be done.

Q 258

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

It saves money and saves time, does not it?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: Well, we can quickly get in, negotiate and try to resolve whatever reason we have been called there for.

Steve White: We must not forget the use of good policing skills in this. Most of the time it is not rocket science. You can quickly establish who is in charge, whether they are wearing an arm band or not; but of course this is about the management of it, rather than responding to an incident. I suspect if there is major disorder breaking out you do not necessarily need to go and find who is in charge. You need to deal with the disorder. That is the only comment I would make.

Q 259

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

You also mentioned that it is very rare to get into a difficult situation. Most of the time these situations are self-policed and well managed; but have you come across scenarios where people wanting to cross the picket line have felt intimidated? Have you had to police that situation at all?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I think policing across the country will certainly have come across that. In my experience, and what I have had fed to me, sometimes at the mere presence of a picket line individuals can feel intimidated; but that is not necessarily, given that picket lines have protection within the law, something that the police are going to intervene about. I think there is a whole spectrum of intimidation, and some people who may wish to go into work will simply feel intimidated because of a presence there, and in my view that is not something that policing would then intervene with. We start to intervene where disorder is looking likely, or there are actual criminal offences that we have on the statute book that we need to deal with.

Steve White: Can I just come back on that? In terms of adding balance you can have the perception that a picket line could be threatening, and I am thinking about the footage from large industrial disputes of the past—the miners’ strike, for example. The last picket that I saw was local to me, in the south-west of England. It was in relation to a rail dispute, I think it was. I have to say that the atmosphere on the picket line was one of very light-hearted jolliness—people tooting their horns and shouting and waving, and so on and so forth. I only add that from a question of balance. Clearly we would not be involved in policing that picket line; but of course, as Charlie has said, if things overstep the mark and start to impress on the peace of it, then of course—

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

Then you have to move resources across.

Steve White: Yes, of course; but there is a balance to be had. As I say, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves at that picket line.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

When I was practising as a criminal barrister we were not allowed to ask leading questions. There is nothing out of order about leading questions, but our  witnesses are so skilled that one probably does not need to lead them, and I sure Mr Doughty, who has the next question, will not.

Q 260

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

There has been some quite unhelpful rhetoric from Ministers about the Bill and industrial action in general. Although industrial action has been at significantly low levels for a generation, the Minister for the Cabinet Office has talked about setting up hit squads, and standing ready to use the Cobra system to deal with industrial action. What are your thoughts about those comments? Do you think it is appropriate that we are talking about using the Cobra system, which is a key national resilience mechanism, to deal with what are extremely low levels of industrial action?

Steve White: My reaction to that—I am not experienced at Cobra; I know that Charlie is—is that we have got to remember that policing in this country is wholly independent of the state. I think that is the important element to recall around that. There is not political control of the police service in this country, and I think it is important that that should continue. Policies and procedures that the Government want to put in place are a matter for the Government, but I will just make that point.

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I would agree with that—that chief constables are independent in terms of how they deploy their resources, and we must remain impartial to the merits of whatever the dispute is around. I think I can perhaps understand why Cobra may, for some disputes, feel the need to meet to sustain services, but the police role within that will always remain impartial. If there is disorder to be dealt with, or there are criminal offences to be dealt with, we will do it, but our role will be as much to facilitate the lawful picketing as it will to facilitate the lawful carrying on of business activities. Our role is right in the middle of that.

Q 261

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

Specifically on Cobra, in your view would it be a very small number of instances where it would ever be appropriate for that system to be brought into play?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: That is ultimately for Government to determine, but I see that there are often local disputes where Cobra would never need to get involved and manage that. The Government will make decisions as to when they need to activate that machinery.

Q 262

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

Thank you both for being here. I have a question for the deputy chief constable. I think you mentioned that your primary responsibilities are to keep the peace and uphold the law. Obviously there have been situations where that has not been the case on picket lines, and we heard evidence on Tuesday about that and talk of intimidation. I was looking around at how you deal with other organised protests, such as marches, and it says clearly on the Met police website:

“Organisers should try to give as much notice as possible”, and provide the names and addresses of organisers. Given that, would it be a help or a hindrance for you to have the notice period in the Bill of two weeks and the identity of someone organising a protest? It seems  pretty clear that it would be a help, rather than a hindrance, but I wanted to confirm which of those you think it would be.

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: Well, I think there are degrees of protest. If you look at protest across the country as a whole, there are some big, national-level protests, but almost on a day-to-day basis many smaller protests take place, too. We are certainly not notified of all of them, nor do I think it practical for police to be notified of them. Many protests are self-policed and are not ones that we would particularly need to get involved with.

Certainly for the bigger scale protests—the ones that are likely to involve some element of policing—some advance notice to plan around that is necessary. Very often, our intelligence structures provide that information to us anyway to enable plans to be put in place. Some of that comes through organisers notifying us, and some of it comes from information and intelligence that we receive into policing.

Q 263

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

Am I right in thinking that it is helpful, then? The Metropolitan police ask for as much information as possible.

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: It is certainly helpful when plans need to be put in place, but I would say that not all protests are of that scale and not all protests on a day-to-day basis receive attention.

Q 264

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

I have a quick follow-up for Steve. When you were describing the picket lines that you have been involved in, you were saying that people were thoroughly enjoying themselves and having a jolly. Part of why we are all here, and the Bill is here, is to tackle the issue of strikes being held on low turnouts and out-of-date ballots that then inconvenience millions of people across the country. We have been hearing from union representatives that, for the most part, they understand that strikes are a last resort and are taken very seriously. Do you also agree with that? The description that you gave just a minute ago about people having a bit of a jolly and thoroughly enjoying themselves, while inconveniencing millions of people, seemed a bit out of kilter with what we have been hearing from others.

Steve White: The context in which I answered that question was in relation to whether picket lines were threatening. I was just giving the balance that in my experience that picket line was probably not one of the threatening ones. In terms of whether a strike should be called and what the level of turnout should be, that is quite simply not a matter for the police service. That is a matter for others; our primary concern is that the peace is kept and that things happen within the law.

I just want to pick up on your previous point to Charlie in relation to notification. It would be great if the police service had more than two weeks’ notice for every single resource requirement that we ever have, but we do not. We have to have resources in place to deal with the unexpected. That includes whether or not we have been notified of something. As Charlie said, that does not necessarily mean that we will have to be used or deployed.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Okay. We have two minutes and two more questions. Jo Stevens and Seema Kennedy, just a brisk question from each of you, please.

Q 265

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I have a question for both witnesses, if I may. You have both talked about the pressures on operational resources at the moment. Given the additional workload for the police that will come in if the Bill becomes law, would you rather have that, or not?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: Well, I think what we would rather be able to do is concentrate on the priorities set down to us by chief constables and police and crime commissioners. There is potentially some additional work for recording the notifications that come through, but I do not think I would want to over-emphasise how significant that is likely to be. That will vary, depending on where you are in the country and those mechanisms. Where we would be concerned is if there is an expectation that at every picket line there is a higher level of police presence. If that is the case, that will impact on other priorities.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Okay. Very quickly, Mr White.

Steve White: I would probably answer it as no.

Q 266

Photo of Seema Kennedy Seema Kennedy Conservative, South Ribble

On Tuesday, we heard from one of the opposition witnesses, Dave Smith, who made very serious claims about police collusion in blacklisting. He said, among other things, that the police are going to keep a list of picket supervisors and pass it on to big businesses. How would you respond to those very serious allegations?

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I would say that I cannot see us doing that.

Q 267

Photo of Seema Kennedy Seema Kennedy Conservative, South Ribble

So you would say that what he said was untrue.

Deputy Chief Constable Hall: I cannot see the police service doing that. That is not something I would expect to happen.

Steve White: I do not think we would, and certainly we should not.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Good. Thank you very much, gentlemen, for your evidence, which is much appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We are very grateful.