Examination of Witnesses

Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 15 October 2015.

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Janet Davies, Jon Skewes, Matt Wrack, Mark Serwotka and Dr Patrick Roach gave evidence.

Q 356

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

We will now hear oral evidence from the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, the Public and Commercial Services Union, the Fire Brigades Union and, of course, the NASUWT. Ladies and gentlemen, we have until 3.5 pm at the absolute latest because of the difficulties we experienced earlier. We will allow you to introduce yourselves briefly, and the Committee will then put questions to you either collectively or individually. The Government are on the right-hand side, and the Opposition are on the left. The three main political parties in Parliament are present, and all evidence gathered will be available for other Members to browse, if they so wish.

Jon Skewes: I am Jon Skewes, director of policy, employment relations and communications at the Royal College of Midwives. The RCM is a professional body and trade union, representing about 45,000 midwives and support workers in the United Kingdom. We have no affiliation to any political party and we work with all in Government and outside Government. At the end of last year and the start of this year, we took our first industrial action in 134 years in England. That was closely followed by similar action in Northern Ireland; it was essentially on the same dispute. In England, it has been amicably settled with the Secretary of State following discussions. We are particularly concerned about the issues of agency staff, picketing restrictions and good industrial relations in the NHS.

Janet Davies: I am Janet Davies, the chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing. We are also a professional organisation and trade union, with approximately 420,000 members across both the public and the private sectors. The majority of our members are registered nurses and health visitors, but we also have healthcare assistants as members. We have never taken strike action in our nearly 100-year history, but we are exceptionally concerned about the Bill, particularly in terms of facility time—clauses 12 and 13—and placing added bureaucracy and added cost on a health service that is already struggling with finances and bureaucracy.

Dr Roach: My name is Patrick Roach. I am the deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, the teachers’ union. We are the largest teachers’ union that organises right across the United Kingdom. We represent about 300,000 teachers. We have fundamental concerns about the provisions in the Bill, including the definition of “important public services”, the use of agency workers and the powers of the certification officer, which we are happy to discuss.

Matt Wrack: I am Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. We represent some 85% of the uniformed fire service workforce and over 90% of whole-time firefighters across the UK. We have had, which you heard some evidence on this morning, a number of industrial disputes. However, much of our time is spent, through our well established industrial relations procedures in the National Joint Council, resolving disputes at local level before they arise. We have concerns about the impact of the Bill on the rights  of firefighters to organise, to protect their safety, which is of particular importance to us, their terms and conditions and the impact that will have on industrial relations in the fire service.

Mark Serwotka: I am Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union. We have a quarter of a million members—overwhelmingly, civil servants and public sector workers working on public contracts and in non-departmental public bodies—and a significant membership in the private sector as a result of outsourcing where people have remained members of PCS.

We have lots of concerns about the Bill, but I know that you are hearing lots of evidence, so I will just draw particularly to your attention at this point the effect of the Bill on people’s right to take lawful industrial action. We are particularly representing public sector workers, who in our case have had 11 years of pay restraint. Secondly, we think much of what is in the Bill was trialled in the civil service by the last Government. Therefore, we have direct experience of the withdrawal of check-off, the withdrawal of facility time and the attempt to openly undermine trade unions by public servants working at the Government’s behest. Thirdly, as a non-affiliated public sector union that spends over £1 million a year on campaigning, much of which is political but not party-political campaigning, we have very clear concerns about the effect of the changes to the political fund rules.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Thank you. Before we proceed to hon. Members asking questions, can I just tell you that we have only until five minutes past 3? Our time is very brief, so please be aware of all the time you are using in the replies to the questions put to you. Try to make them succinct, because you are using each other’s time up. I am just giving you a bit of advice. If you could be helpful to both Members and yourselves, that would be much appreciated by Members.

Q 357

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

I have a few short questions that I would like to put to different groups if that is okay. First, to Jon and Janet, given what we have heard about the relatively small incidence of industrial action in the history of the health sector, particularly in relation to your two bodies, fundamentally do you think that this Bill is needed?

Jon Skewes: Not at all. I do not think we have plans to repeat that industrial action over and over again by any means. I think we think it is disproportionate, absolutely; and also it could be quite dangerous in terms of safety in the NHS.

Janet Davies: We do not think it is necessary at all. In fact, we think it will damage relationships, which are very good in the health service. We know that productivity is increased with the facilities time and with having trade union representatives in the workplace. We know it affects patient safety. We think it will be expensive. We think it will introduce extra bureaucracy and could be quite damaging for the good relationships we have got, which could have an effect counter to what is required.

Q 358

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

Janet, we had a Government witness yesterday, from an organisation called 2020 Health who, you may have heard, had a whole half hour  to explain that they did not appear to know anything about the Bill. Nor did they know what facilities time was. Unfortunately, you have not got very much time, but could you briefly give us an example of how facilities time benefits employees and patients?

Janet Davies: Yes. We know that facilities time has benefits; we have looked at the evidence and the University of Warwick has done some studies for us and we know that productivity is increased. Certainly, in terms of staff leaving and recruiting, it is much better in a place where there is trade union facilities time, and where there are trade union representatives. Actually, we have worked out that that difference in turnover would save an average teaching hospital £1 million a year. It is a really positive effect that the time gives.

What happens is that our trade union representatives work in partnership with employers, often introducing change, introducing new clinical practice, and investigating things and stopping problems before they start. The proposal could be counterproductive for the good relationships that we have at the moment. Importantly for us as a nursing organisation it could have a detrimental effect on patient care, as it would seriously affect the positive practice environment that we try to create.

Q 359

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

Thank you for that. Matt, we heard some evidence from the London Fire Brigade this morning and you have referred to it. I wondered whether you wanted to respond to any of the comments and whether you could also tell us about the different approaches to industrial relations in the fire sector across the UK. Some quite important contrasts were drawn between what has happened in Wales and what happened in some disputes in London.

Matt Wrack: Yes, I do want to correct the impression that was given this morning. I have known Ron Dobson a long time and was surprised to hear some of the things he said. He mentioned that he was unaware of any arrests. There were two arrests in that dispute. They were not of FBU members. One was of a non-union middle manager and one was of an agency driver—in both cases for driving into members of the Fire Brigades Union. Two of our members were injured, one of whom is sitting in this room, behind us. Ron Dobson was also unaware of the outcome, which is again surprising because his own authority paid compensation to the two FBU members who were injured as a result of those two incidents.

Q 360

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

So you were surprised that he did not appear to be aware of that fact.

Matt Wrack: I am surprised that the senior executive of that organisation did not know that his organisation had paid compensation to two members of mine who had been injured by agents of his during an industrial dispute.

He also used the word “barricades”, which gives the impression of watching “Les Mis”, or something. There were no barricades on London fire stations in 2010. It is utterly misleading to claim that. He also was asked a question, by Jo Stevens, I believe, about the unlawful docking of pay. He said that three cases had been settled. Most people will know that actually in many such cases you run test cases. We ran three test cases of 368 individuals who had had pay stopped. We won  those test cases. The London Fire Brigade has decided not to appeal, and the London fire authority has set aside several tens of thousands of pounds to pay compensation for the 368 Fire Brigades Union members who had pay unlawfully stopped. Those are the facts of the situation.

Q 361

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

It is very concerning to hear that, and the commissioner made it clear that he would write to the Committee with some of the information that he did not appear to have at his fingertips. I hope that he will correct some of what he said in the light of what you have said to us just now.

I want to ask about devolution and perhaps this could be touched on broadly across the panel. Clearly, you all operate in public services that are, to a large extent, wholly or partially devolved across the UK. We have just heard from Professor Ewing that the Bill could lead to a fairly serious constitutional crisis in terms of cutting across the devolution settlement. How would you respond to that? Do you think that there are serious risks for relationships across Wales, Scotland and local government across England, of which the Bill shows no awareness, and does not address? I am happy to take a couple of comments, though I am sure we do not have time to hear from everyone.

Mark Serwotka: I share Professor Ewing’s concerns, and I will illustrate that with these examples. We have very good industrial relations currently, for example, in Scotland and Wales with the devolved Administrations, who have sat down and agreed with us the need for positive industrial relations, and made it clear that they do not wish to see the withdrawal of check-off or facility time. What we are in danger of seeing is those bodies that have entered into agreements with their workforce for the smooth running of public services being compelled to act against what they think is in the best interests of themselves as an employer and public service users.

That is particularly concerning because if we look at the civil service when this was done, the last Government effectively compelled all Government Departments to do the same thing, under the guise of this activity being a waste of taxpayers’ money. The Committee needs to know that in the civil service our union offered to pay every penny of every cost that was required to take check-off, so there would be no cost to the taxpayer. Not only was that rejected, but we saw the absurd situation in the Department for Communities and Local Government, where Eric Pickles, as the Secretary of State, withdrew check-off. We took him to the High Court; he lost the case and we won it, on a contractual right to check-off. He cost the taxpayer £100,000 to save £320 a year in the entire Department’s administration.

Q 362

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

Given what you have just said and given the evidence from the Welsh Government and others, do you think that there is a serious risk here that we will end with significant legal disputes about contractual provisions that have already been entered into, particularly with regard to check-off?

Mark Serwotka: Absolutely inevitably and it will be very, very costly, as the example I have just given proves. We can furnish you with the evidence of that case.

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

Sir Alan, I will just point out that Opposition Members have used up pretty much half the sitting so far, before there has been any question from Government Members.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

We have sittings such as this one to try to get the message across. I have got a little bit of leeway to gain back time; I am aware of that. But I would like to move on, because the next questioner is Edward Argar.

Q 363

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

Mr Wrack, thank you very much for your clarification there, particularly of that court case, and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) for his comment. Going back to the evidence from the commissioner this morning, in the course of that dispute in 2010, was access in any way to any fire station being used by contingency crews impeded by any FBU members at any point?

Matt Wrack: Again, I found it somewhat surprising that Mr Dobson presented it in that way. We had pickets on fire stations, as we are perfectly entitled to do, and there were no such barricades. There was a police presence on some occasions. We co-operated, and we had interesting evidence from the police earlier today. We co-operated with the police on every occasion that there were discussions. It is utterly misleading, as again was suggested, to say that there were any delays to emergency calls as a result of the actions of FBU pickets during that dispute.

Q 364

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

That is not quite what I asked; I am grateful for that, but it is not quite what I asked. Did those pickets in any way impede any ingress or egress to and from those stations?

Matt Wrack: They were picketing their place of work. What happened in general is that the replacement agency staff drove up to the fire station and drove off.

Q 365

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

So you say that they were picketing their place of work. What happened in general? Were there any occasions when access was physically blocked?

Matt Wrack: I think I have explained that. Firefighters were picketing their place of work. Replacement agency staff drove up and drove off. That is what happened. There was no pushing and shoving; if you have got images of 1970s TV programmes, that is not what happened in any of these situations.

Q 366

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

Would you agree or disagree with the view—I suspect that I know the answer, but I will ask the question—that what you have just said, if we accept it, that some people drove up and drove off again, shows that those people felt intimidated by the presence of those pickets and the behaviour, which caused them to drive away again?

Matt Wrack: Let us be clear about the right to picket. The right to picket is being interpreted by some people as an attempt to intimidate. The right to picket is about trying to persuade other workers to comply with the call to take action. In this case—again, Ron Dobson seemed to forget the cause of the dispute. The cause of the dispute was that he had issued a sacking notice to 5,000 London firefighters; the entire workforce were being sacked. So you can imagine that some of them  were quite irate about that. However, where we had the opportunity to speak to those agency replacement staff, we did so, and in a number of cases the police assisted us in doing that. We put our case to those agency staff; unfortunately, they carried on with the work they were undertaking.

Q 367

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

I have a couple of very quick follow-ups. You will be familiar with the Carr report. Paragraph 4.66 refers to evidence provided by Assistant Commissioner Dave Brown on behalf of the London fire brigade, in which he made a number of allegations. I would be grateful for your reaction to them, either collectively or individually. He said that,

“tactics included…Stations left open or barricaded and fire alarms activated…Security codes at fire stations changed…Station gates padlocked and crews cars blocking forecourts preventing access for stand-in crews.”

Those are just a few of the number of things he suggested. Do you have any reaction to the assertions in that report, Mr Wrack?

Matt Wrack: Again, I have known Dave Brown a long time. I worked on the same watch as him at one point. His report has not been backed up by any evidence. The interesting point in all this is the question: what did the police do? If there were concerns about this and implications of serious breaches of public order, the police would have intervened. The police did not intervene. We had good relations and good co-ordination with the police throughout all the protests that took place during that dispute. None of our members were arrested. The only two arrests were of two people who decided to work through that dispute and ran over two people who were protesting. I reject those suggestions from Mr Brown, but we are happy to look at any evidence that he actually has with any detail on that.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

May I point out to people giving evidence and answering questions and to Members that we are approaching having used two thirds of our time? We should make it more succinct if you want to get the answers in. I call Chris Stephens.

Q 368

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

Thank you, Sir Alan. First, I ask the panel for their thoughts on whether they regard the threshold proposal to have any impact on women who wish to pursue industrial action. Secondly, can they give examples in relation to their political funds? I believe that they are all at the moment not affiliated to a political party. How will the Bill affect those political funds, and what organisations will it affect?

Mark Serwotka: Very briefly, the changes to political funds will have an enormous effect. People should not confuse it with affiliation to the Labour party in our case, because we are non-party politically affiliated. It is timely that we have been asked that question, because I am here on the very day that the Government announced that they were essentially backing down on the privatisation of criminal fines enforcement in the Ministry of Justice. My union has waged a five-year political campaign pointing out that that privatisation is wrong, and the Government have accepted that argument today.

A year and a half ago, we made a political argument not to privatise the Land Registry, which was also successful. Those campaigns are funded by political funds, which would be devastated by the opt-in, rather than opt-out method. It would massively curtail things.  Directly, there is evidence that had we not run those campaigns, the Government would probably have made the wrong decision on two occasions.

On the right to strike—I will keep this short so other people can speak—all I would say is that in my union, it is predominantly the women membership who are suffering from 11 years of low pay and freezes to tax credits. Some 40% of PCS members claim tax credits. It is quite clear that there is a disproportionate effect on them if their ability to strike is undermined.

All I would ask the Committee is to consider this: do the Government really care about thresholds? Over the past 10 years, during the last Labour Government, the coalition Government and now, I am on record as saying that we would love to sit down and talk about changes in ballot methods to allow secure, online workplace balloting. In my union, we have done pilots. Where the law allows ballots in the workplace, the turnout is treble what it is when you have a statutory ballot by post. There is irrefutable proof that in comparable elections, three times the number of people vote in work. We have the technology to do it securely. That is what the Government should be talking about, because that would have a massive upwards effect on turnout.

Matt Wrack: Very quickly on the political fund, we were affiliated to the Labour party. We are not currently affiliated to the Labour party, but we have a political fund. Our members have the right to opt out of that political fund. In our union, they also have the right to make clear that they would not want any political fund going to a political affiliation, even if we were affiliated. They have a number of choices on the political fund. As Mark said, our political fund is primarily used for key political campaigns around the terms, conditions and safety of firefighters. In our view, were the Bill to proceed, it would seriously undermine our ability to function in that regard.

On the point about balloting, we note that both major political parties have recently used modern forms of balloting—for example, electronic balloting has been used by the Tories for the appointment of the candidate for London Mayor—so it seems bizarre to us that trade unions are being told that we cannot use such balloting methods going forward.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

May I pause you for a second? We have 10 minutes remaining and four Members want to ask questions, so we need to speed up the replies and the questions.

Q 369

Photo of Seema Kennedy Seema Kennedy Conservative, South Ribble

Dr Roach, when your members go on strike, the people affected will all have to arrange alternative childcare because of the nature of your members’ profession. In relation to clause 7, which is on the notice period, do you not recognise that giving parents 14 days, rather than seven, would give them more scope to organise alternative arrangements?

Dr Roach: We do not agree with the proposed measure to increase the notification period for industrial action. It has to be borne in mind that, as a trade union, we are engaged in industrial action that does not always include strike action. In fact, by and large, our industrial action is pupil and parent-friendly. It includes action short of strike action, which is to say working to an idea about  what the teacher’s contract should be in order to raise educational standards, so that children’s education is not disrupted.

Q 370

Photo of Seema Kennedy Seema Kennedy Conservative, South Ribble

But when there is strike action and there is disruption to children’s education and their parents’ ability to go to work, would you not recognise that giving them 14 days’ notice would give them more ample opportunity to re-arrange their lives, so that they can contribute to the economy by going to work?

Dr Roach: I am not going to challenge the logic of what you are saying. What I would argue is—

Q 371

Dr Roach: I am not going to challenge the logic of the argument you have put forward. The best way to minimise disruption to parents up and down the country is through sensible dialogue, genuine negotiation and a will to resolve industrial disputes before disruption becomes necessary. I would take you back to a point I made at the outset: by and large, our industrial action features action short of strike action, which does not disrupt the rights and ability of parents one jot. At the moment, we have in the Bill a blanket or universal provision affecting all forms of industrial action. That seems to us to be unnecessary and disproportionate.

Q 372

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I have a question for Mr Skewes. Earlier this week, we heard from a Government witness from 2020 Health who seemed unaware that trade unions already have life and limb cover in hospitals when industrial action is taken. Do you believe that the Government’s wider proposals on the use of agency workers during strike action are required?

Jon Skewes: No, not at all. The last thing the English NHS in particular needs is more agency workers, the cost of which has gone up by a factor of 11 over the past two years. If there were proposals to bring in agency workers instead of, for example, midwives, first of all, someone attending a woman giving birth has to be, by law, a midwife or a doctor. We think it would undermine quality and safety. Frankly, in our last industrial action, we ensured that every women in this country had the service that would normally be available to them. Most of our members were not on strike—I would say that 90% of our members were providing that cover and 10% were on what were essentially protests. I think that that was hugely supported by the British public.

There are a number of other things. First, there are not that many of those people. If we look at the figures—I think this is in our written evidence—most agency workers are already working in the NHS at the moment. They are probably also our members, so the agency workers themselves would be on strike.

Secondly, I think it would have a really bad effect on team morale and the way in which safety is underpinned. Those people do not have the knowledge of trust safety protocols, quality protocols and so on. We resent the fact that, given the way we absolutely went out of our way with trusts and NHS England to underpin safety during that dispute, we would be faced with a dilemma in the future. Do we allow them to just replace our members with agency workers, which would be much more costly but we know would not be as safe? I do not think we would do that. It is a dilemma that we resent.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Two Members want to ask questions. I am going to take them both together. If for any reason you wish to come back in the short period we have got left, I will allow that.

Q 373

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

I have a quick question for Mr Serwotka. I understood your points about online balloting. Just so I understand, do you support the principle of a threshold for strike action, so that when there is disruption to the public services that people depend on, they know it has been backed by a reasonable number of members involved?

Mark Serwotka: No, I do not. Unless the Government were to say that thresholds should apply to all referendums and all other comparable ballots, it singles out the trade unions. It means that people who do not vote are counted as no votes, which to my mind is completely unacceptable.

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee

This is a question for Dr Roach. The NASUWT organises across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Could you let Members know whether there is any significant difference in levels of industrial action in the four areas, where the governance is different?

Dr Roach: Yes, we do indeed organise right across the United Kingdom. There are very real differences in the industrial relations contexts in each of those jurisdictions. Our ability to engage in genuine dialogue with the Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales is, frankly, far superior to our ability to engage in genuine dialogue, with the view to resolving teachers’ very real concerns about their pay, pensions, working conditions and job security, in England. There are acute differences, but I would come back to the issue of the importance of the trade unions’ ability to represent the interests of their members. They ensure that their members’ working conditions are adequately protected through the use not only of strike action but of other means, including the intelligent use of action short of strike action. That has been an important mainstay of our strategy for protecting the interests of our members right across the UK.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Thank you very much. That brings us to the end of the time allotted to your panel. Thank you very much for attending. If we have any queries arising from the evidence you have given, we will be in touch to ask you to reply.