First, may I welcome you all to the Committee? It is an illustrious bunch we have in front of us who represent an awfully large body of members. It is very rare that Parliament has the opportunity to get such a group together and ask them questions. You will very quickly introduce yourselves to the Committee. We will then move on to queries and questions from Members, which will alternate between the Government and Opposition sides. We will go to Members who wish to raise questions relating to the Bill.
Dave Prentis: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Dave Prentis. I am general secretary of Unison—the public service union of 1.3 million paying members who provide our public services. We recruit everybody in public services, except doctors and teachers. We do compete for members with other unions—probably 10 in local government and maybe 15 in the health service.
My view is very strongly that the Bill as worded at the moment is a major attack on workers’ rights in this country, and it will make industrial relations, especially in public services, far more difficult. We have partnership working throughout all of our public services. We have agreements that bring in many of the issues that are going to be made illegal and we think that it will lead to far worse industrial relations.
Frances O'Grady: My name is Frances O'Grady. I am the general secretary of the TUC, representing 52 unions who organise around 6 million workers UK-wide. The TUC opposes this Bill and the associated proposals. We believe it threatens fundamentally the right to strike and other critical civil liberties in this country. We note that the Regulatory Policy Committee said that the Bill was not fit for purpose, and we believe that it would fundamentally shift the balance of power from ordinary working people towards employers and make it harder for unions to defend jobs, pay and fairness at work.
Can I add that I am conscious that a good deal of the debate has focused on thresholds, even though that contravenes the ILO's clear standards on this issue? It is important to note that, even if all those tests and thresholds were met, the Government also propose that employers should be able to replace striking workers with inexperienced and possibly untrained agency workers, therefore completely pulling the rug from beneath the right to strike. We know that if this was about improving turnout in ballots, the best way to do that would be through allowing unions to use electronic and workplace balloting.
I end by saying I think it is important to be clear from the start that we believe that the real aim of this Bill and the proposals that go with it is to give employers new ways to take unions to court and thereby impose penalties and seek damages and injunctions against unions. I would suggest that the approach of this Bill is straight out of Norman Tebbit’s textbook from the 1980s.
Sir Paul Kenny: Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB—not a failing business, as some people might have you believe. We have actually, as a union, grown every year for the last 10 years, so we must be something right about appealing to people. We are opposed to the Bill. We had 625,000 members all above ground as at the end of 2014. That figure is now at 635,000.
I will not take a long time. We have agreements with global players, as well as household names that you would know, from energy companies to Asda-Walmart—the only collective bargaining agreement they have anywhere in the world is with us in this country, and they do not see, as I understand it, a need to support this Bill, either. I would describe my view personally and that of my colleagues by saying that, if this Bill was on the pudding menu at the Carlton Club, it would be called an ideological Eton mess.
Len McCluskey: Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest union, with 1.4 million members, covering all sectors of the economy—manufacturing, transport, financial services and public services, as well as private services. I obviously agree with all the comments my colleagues have made. The Bill is a threat to democracy; I think you have been told that by a whole range of different organisations from across the spectrum of our society. It is also a threat to the cohesive nature of the communities in which we work. I am hoping that this Committee will record our views as clearly and sincerely as possible, and that the Prime Minister and the Government might rethink elements of the Bill.
Thank you. Although you have chosen not to send along national officials of various sectors in your union, which is a very large group of organisations, the same rules apply. We will have a series of questions asked, with replies and opinions given back. We only have until 4.15 pm to do that, so we need to do it quite succinctly. If not, you are using your own time. Members might ask you to go on and on, but what you want to do is get as many replies across as possible.
Frances, can I turn to you first? Correct me if I am wrong, but I think you said that the TUC represents 6 million workers—one tenth of the UK population. That is a huge number. Given the severe implications of the Bill for a whole range of issues and its potential impact on those individual members and, indeed, the member unions of the TUC, are you satisfied with the level of consultation and how the Government have gone about the consultation in drafting and presenting the Bill?
Frances O'Grady: Absolutely not, nor was the Regulatory Policy Committee. I am afraid that bad laws are made in haste. We were given an eight-week period over the summer holidays for the consultation period, and of course that has left huge holes and uncertainty in the proposals, which I am very happy to list separately. Very big and important questions appear not to have been considered and thrown in belatedly—for example, the proposals on removal of check-off in the public sector. Critically, this has meant that unions, employers and those with practical experience of industrial relations have not had the chance to influence the nature of the Bill in the way we should. I think it contravenes the Government’s own standards in that respect.
I have been pleased to belatedly have contact with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers and officials, but I wrote to the Prime Minister on 15 May, following the election of the Conservative Government, asking to meet to discuss precisely this issue, and I have not yet received a reply. Frankly, I think my members would see that as discourteous to working people.
So the Prime Minister is not willing to meet an organisation that represents a tenth of our population—that is quite surprising. Are you also surprised that we are discussing the Bill, in both this format and the line-by-line sessions, without having seen the responses to the consultation process from the Government or much of the secondary legislation that the Bill gives them very wide powers to implement?
Thank you. I wonder if I could turn briefly to Dave. I understand Unison has significant concerns about the aspects of the Bill that address facility time, check-off and so on. Could you briefly outline your key headline points of concern?
Dave Prentis: I will try to be as quick as I can. To deal with check-off, these are voluntary arrangements made with employers. No employer is forced into the arrangement. We have 9,334 check-off arrangements with separate employers, 7,242 of which are in the public sector. It is a means by which we organise our partnership work and it is based on three contracts. There is the contract involving the member agreeing the payroll arrangement. It is voluntary, and they are given the option of other means of paying. There is a collective agreement with the trade union, part of which includes training arrangements, facility time and check-off. Obviously, there is also a contract between the union and the member. The systems work incredibly well. From an employer point of view, they know who is in a union.
You can have deductions at source for 14 or 15 different things, including buying a bicycle, paying crèche charges or for season tickets. Why would an employee’s contribution to their trade union be the only thing excluded? Why are the Government pushing auto-enrolment for pensions, which we think is right, while denying trade unions the ability to collect money? It singles out trade unions and will have a major effect on partnership working in health, schools and local government, because the arrangements are part of our participation arrangements.
If we have to spend all our time seeking to transfer people over, that means changing 800,000 people from check-off to direct debit. It will be a massive undertaking, using all the union’s resources. We represent 1 million women members, most of whom are low paid, and we do not see the need to disrupt arrangements that employers have been willing to enter into. It about localism. It is about the employer having the right, at the local level, to decide what agreements they want to reach with their trade union, without having authoritarian legislation preventing them from doing so. There is no logic to singling out the public sector and not the whole economy. It is based on prejudice, and it will badly affect our working relationships with the employers that recognise us.
Connected to this is time off for trade union duties. I will be as brief as I can. Our relationship with employers is based on our local reps having partnership working with them, sitting in the committees that deal with major issues, and representing people in the workplace, which the employers need for their disciplinary or grievance procedures. This is all done by activists under the time-off arrangements. If those arrangements are taken away from our people, it will mean that the joint working that has been fostered in public services since 1948 will become far more aggressive. There will be far more industrial action, and we will have major problems.
We have union learning reps who are involved in getting people to train not just as stewards, but professionally. We do dementia, mental health awareness, lesbian and gay rights and service user training. We provide training for the employers when they sign the agreement. Many thousands of low-paid public service workers benefit from this. They actually get on in life through this and get promotions as a result. All of that will end if these draconian attacks on check-off and facility time take place. They are part of the fabric of the work that we do as a union across all our public services.
That is very helpful. Turning to another section of the Bill and the provisions that deal with picketing, we have heard the police’s serious concerns, shared by many witnesses, about the workability of a number of the proposals, in particular the proposals in the consultation relating to policing Facebook and Twitter. What has your experience of picketing been? Do you think that these proposals would simply not work?
Sir Paul Kenny: The reality is that the police are looked at in picket line situations almost exclusively as the middle people. They are independent and the co-operation with the police, which is vital for the police to do their job, comes about as a result of being seen in that light. With these proposed regulations, effectively, it is a whole new ballgame.
Please, do not anybody tell me about intimidation on picket lines. I have seen lots of it. I have seen people blacklisted from work for 20 years because they stood on a picket line. I have seen people intimidated about going back to their job by managers, but there is nothing in this Bill is about any of that, is there? I hear—it is illusionary, almost—these stories about intimidation on picket lines. My experience is that the police are effective at dealing with that, and they do it by consent and they do it clearly. It is not what trade unions condone or seek and the police operate very much on a consensus basis.
The side wagons to the main Bill—if you will forgive me for putting it that way—are issues such as the notice-posting and the rest of it. This is just beyond belief. It would be uncontrollable by us anyway—that we would be able to predict what is going to be put on Twitter or Facebook by other people, who may not be particularly connected with the union at all—but we would effectively find ourselves involved. You are criminalising what is effectively a civil right. That is why I described it earlier as just a mess. This is clearly a mess.
Can I ask a separate question on participation? Perhaps some of the others will want to answer; I know that Len has concerns about that. As union representatives, I am sure that you all want to increase participation in ballots and to see the maximum turnout in those. We have heard a lot about the fact that the Government do not seem to be willing to consider e-balloting, secure workplace balloting and other methods. Could you briefly comment on that, Sir Paul, and then Len? I looked closely at your evidence, Len, and you speak about Central Arbitration Committee ballots, for example, where secure workplace balloting is already used. What are your views on why the Government will not accept methods that would boost the participation that they say they want to see?
Sir Paul Kenny: I will briefly answer, then pass the question to Len. In a sense, this gets to the heart of what this Bill is all about. This is a dishonest approach, because if it was really about getting more people to participate and more people to engage, you would modernise a balloting process that is actually a third of a century old. That is how old it is, but the truth of the matter is that you do not want to. The Government are not seeking to help people to participate or seeking to get conflict resolution. If you think frustrating people through a ballot will mean that the problem will go away, it will not. It will get bigger and then it may erupt in a way that is not controllable by the selected agreements. This is absolutely a dishonest approach.
Sir Paul Kenny: Of course. I forget how many countries use this now, but a whole host of countries do. There was a quote from the Speaker’s Commission saying this was unfair, or unreliable, but I am not sure that that is actually what they did say. I went back and had a look at it and I do not think that is right. Clearly, people are talking about maybe modernising our general election participation by moving to electronic balloting. You clearly want the vast majority of people to participate. That is what you want, and it is why the thresholds issue is not one that I am particularly—I would like to see every person participate, but this Bill does not even attempt to deal with the issue of encouraging people to participate, thereby encouraging dispute resolution. What it seeks to do is to suppress it and therefore foster it.
Len McCluskey: Obviously, Paul has made the point that this is the nub of the Bill. In fact, the Prime Minister himself on 4 October, in an interview with Andrew Marr, made it clear that lots of things in the Bill can be debated and discussed. The inference was that they could be changed and amended, but he said that this was the most important element of the Bill. Everyone in this room will know that I have written to the Prime Minister suggesting that if he is genuine about wanting to increase the turnout, given that he has expressed his concerns about low turnout, which all of us have concerns about, then he should move towards, and get involved in a proper debate about, modern methods of balloting—the same balloting that the Conservative party has just elected their London mayoral candidate with—and most importantly, secure workplace balloting. All of that is feasible. The Electoral Reform Society has said that that is easily achievable with independent assessors.
You asked me, Stephen, why it is not being supported, but you need to ask that question of your colleagues opposite in the Conservative party. When you are considering the whole nature of the situation, you have to ask yourself what is wrong with secure, independent workplace balloting. The point that Paul makes about where this may lead us is something that members of this Committee, and indeed the Government in general, will need to consider seriously. We may well find that our members—ordinary, individual, decent trade unionists, who contribute massively to the wealth of our nation—are pushed outside the law. What this Bill will do, if it is not changed, is to require general secretaries such as myself to repudiate, or distance themselves from, those workers. Unite will not do that. We will not repudiate and we will not distance ourselves from people who are engaged in legitimate action.
I have said to the Prime Minister, extending the hand of pragmatism, “Please sit down with us. There is no reason why you cannot concede the principle of independent, secure workplace balloting. If you did so, the issue of thresholds would become an irrelevance. Workplace balloting would consistently produce high turnouts.” I am puzzled as to why there has not been a positive response to that offer. I am confused about why that was not snatched at immediately, unless the Prime Minister is being disingenuous. With the greatest respect, I have to say that it did not fill me with confidence when he said yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions:
“I notice that Len McCluskey now supports our position.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 314.]
That is wrong and disingenuous, and he knows that. My appeal to him, to the Government and to the Conservative members of the Committee, is: please, stop playing games and tell us why you believe secure workplace balloting is not acceptable. Nobody is giving a reason. If that was grasped in the manner in which it has been offered, a huge element of the controversy surrounding the Bill would be removed.
Frances O'Grady: Chair, I wonder if I can add very briefly to that. I know that this issue of safety and security has been raised a number of times, including by the Minister in a meeting I held with him—although I think, Nick, you actually quoted the lack of security of a postal ballot in a local authority election, perhaps in error.
The real issue here is: is electronic balloting any less safe than postal balloting? The Electoral Reform Society report confirms that it is no less safe, given the risk run in postal balloting. Of course, a number of employers, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, use electronic balloting already to elect worker representatives to their consultative committee. We see it used across a whole range of organisations, including political ones. Frankly, if it was not safe, that selection ballot for the Conservative Mayor of London candidate should be rerun as a postal ballot.
May I just say that we have got a very short period of time left? The purpose of the session is to get in touch with you. You got in touch with us and said that you wanted to say things, and we said that we would like to ask questions of you. I have got about seven or eight Members of Parliament, on both sides, who want to do so. If you can be more succinct—that goes for Members too—we will try to get as many answers out as possible, and that may help both sides.
I thank all four of you for coming. I am pleased that we have focused on the thresholds issue, and I agree that it is by far the most important point. In evidence on Tuesday, we heard a large number of examples of serious disruption caused to ordinary members of the public on relatively low turnouts. For example, David Martin, who is a director of Arriva buses, which operates in London, referred to the London strike in 2012. He said:
“The fact that 17% of my staff voted and 50% of the buses did not run in London over that period of time shows us that we need a failsafe, and this Bill delivers that failsafe.”––[Official Report, Trade Union Public Bill Committee, 13 October 2015; c. 7, Q4.]
My question is for Frances O'Grady. At the beginning, you mentioned thresholds in relation to the ILO, and we are now talking about thresholds in relation to e-voting. Are you saying that you oppose the threshold change in principle or that you would accept it if it came with electronic voting?
Frances O'Grady: The TUC’s position is very clear. The labour arm of the UN is very clear that you cannot count abstentions as no votes. We are arguing for a positive, 21st-century solution to boosting ballot turnouts by using modern means, including electronic balloting, in a way that is safe and secure and independently supervised. If that is what this is really about, give us the right to do it, as many of the organisations represented around this table—
When you say “what this is really about”, this is not a conspiracy. We are extremely concerned about ordinary members of the public whose lives are disrupted when schools close, when buses and trains are not available and when London comes to a standstill on the basis of a ballot that has a low turnout. If it has a high turnout, we accept that. We accept the right to strike, and we accept many of the principles upon which your organisations are based. I have a question for Sir Paul—
Okay. That is what it says.
In relation to the police, we heard this morning from a senior police officer who was referring to the ability to identify someone when a strike happens and how useful it would be for them if it were easier to identify the lead—the person co-ordinating it. I would be interested in your comments on that.
Sir Paul Kenny: I would be happy to take you.
Look, I have been on a few, for obvious reasons—it is the nature of the job. Before I was a union official, I exercised my right to go on strike. My experience is that where picket lines are correctly policed, they are policed by consent. That normally always means that the officers strike up a relationship over a long period of time. They will introduce themselves and ask exactly who the union official is and who the steward is. The union officials normally wear some identification, but there is a fairly limited number of people. It is not 500 people in the road—the police would deal with that.
The idea that you need to supply lists of names and addresses is a real problem for us, and I will tell you again why. We know, thanks to the Scottish Affairs Committee, that thousands of working people were blacklisted—some for little more than attending a union meeting. There is nothing in the Bill about that. I see nothing that says there are protections and penalties. It is not unnatural for us to say that you have the police, who police by consent, and we support them in that. They strike up relationships with people almost every day—you might hear about the odd occasion here or there. I think that relationship is a good, professional one. Moving that on, so the police take names, keep registers and identify individuals who have attended, leads it into another area that we have incredible mistrust about.
I do not know what the police’s official reaction is, but I would have thought that this is not something they particularly like. I know what you said about one bit of evidence, but I am not certain that that is the view of all policemen.
Dave Prentis: Could I just take up the point about thresholds? We are not just talking about simple thresholds; we are talking about a second threshold in public services. We have no knowledge of which areas will be covered—it is very, very vague. The second threshold means a negation of democracy. If you reach a 50% threshold in, say, a health ballot, 80% of the members have got to vote for action, not a simple majority. It will be impossible to achieve. You are denying the right of public service workers under national agreements to use industrial action as a very final resort. That is how far it is going. You have to realise the unintended consequences of the double threshold—it is not one, it is two. It will bring to an end the right of millions of workers in public services to take action. It will never be achieved. You should be aware of that.
It is a very difficult area for us. We want to increase participation—we know that we have strength the more people participate—but you do not do it in that draconian way, because it will just lead to unofficial action and a breakdown in industrial relations in our public services. You will regret it.
What are your opinions on the use of agency workers? What effect could that have on public safety and, where you represent healthcare workers, patient safety?
Frances O'Grady: We have very good relations and agreements with agencies and the federation representing agencies in this country. We have always worked very closely on the fair principles of employers needing flexibility to cover peaks and troughs in production, or staff absences, and doing that on the basis of equal treatment within the framework of the union agreement. This proposal is obviously quite different. We are potentially talking about employers having the right to replace wholesale workers who have democratically voted to go on strike with, potentially, untrained and inexperienced agency workers.
As we know, labour providers source from all over Europe, so is the idea that workers would be bussed in, perhaps from another country, perhaps not knowing what they are being bussed in to do, and be put in the invidious position of being asked to cross a picket line? Many employers, including the industry federation, have said publicly, very clearly, that it is absolutely wrong-headed to put agency workers in the middle of difficult disputes. It is not something we have seen in this country for 40 years or more, and frankly it is either naive or positively dangerous to deliberately seek to undermine legitimately decided and democratically voted on strikes by the use of agency labour.
Dave Prentis: It is a very final resort when a public service worker or a health worker takes industrial action. Last year was the first time in 34 years that our members have taken action over pay, and it was to achieve the Government’s 1% pay award, which the Secretary of State had denied the workers, but we reached written agreements to provide cover. We provided written agreements—we signed them with the other unions involved—on ambulance workers to make sure that ambulances were there, all ready to go in an emergency. We reached written agreements for cover on wards. Sometimes, they have better cover than they do at times when they have staff absences because they want to ensure that the critical wards are covered. There is no need for agencies to be brought in.
With the change in the thresholds and the idea of agency workers—even Margaret Thatcher did not propose this. The idea of using agency workers, combined with all the other restrictions on industrial action, is punitive. Somebody wants to attack trade unions, but they are basing it on 1980s values, and we have moved on. The Bill will not in any way affect the productivity of the country, which we should be looking at—whether competition in Britain is good enough to take on the rest of the world. We are just going to end up fighting with each other, when we should be working together to ensure that workers benefit, the organisations they work for benefit and, in our case, patients benefit.
To continue on agency workers, we took evidence earlier from Mr Jon Skewes from the Royal College of Midwives. He mentioned how potentially disruptive it could be if midwives were to go on strike. There are two issues: the fact that it costs so much to bring in agency staff, and the need to ensure that staff have the right skills to support mums and babies. If midwives were to go on strike, it would put at risk pregnant mums and their babies. Are you saying you would not want any agency staff available at that unit if a mum was going into labour? Would you not then allow agency staff to come in to work, to help those mums and babies?
I am just asking as a point of principle, because Ms O'Grady said she did not want to see any agency staff. In this sector, would you not want to see any agency staff covering the shifts of striking midwives?
Frances O'Grady: The agreements are between the employers and the unions. I refer you to the NHS employers that have written to Ministers saying they are concerned that this Bill, its tone and the aggressive approach taken by it are jeopardising the good, long-standing social partnership arrangements we have in health and many other public services.
Dave Prentis: I have never known a time when we have taken action in health and an agency would be needed, because we provide the full-time staff to stay in. We give them a dispensation, and we reach agreements with management on the levels of staffing they think they need to run those services. On many occasions, we have more staff in than are in on a normal Saturday or Sunday.
You represent a large proportion of the working people in our communities and our constituencies. We heard some damning evidence this morning about what happens to people who choose not to go on strike. We heard from the London fire brigade about how difficult it is for people who choose not to go on strike to get into their fire stations and carry on with their duties, and how they are possibly putting themselves at risk by continuing to go into work.
We also heard evidence from SITA. In its written evidence, it told us that non-striking workers during a strike in Doncaster in 2011 had been subject to “sabotage of private property”. Its evidence goes on to say that
“strikers visited the homes of workers, slashing car tyres and throwing paint stripper over a car. The Working Men’s Club used by a non-striker was contacted by a striker…who threatened the steward of the club that if they allowed him to use the bar, the club would be vandalised. The club barred the non-striker.”
How are you able to represent your non-striking union members and other workers? Who is supporting them?
Len McCluskey: Fine, and I am going to answer it. There are current laws to deal with any action of that nature, which is criminal. You have put forward a specific incident that suggests striking workers are engaged in criminal activity. The police will deal with that when it is brought to their attention. If you asking whether I support that type of criminal behaviour, no, I do not. The police have sufficient laws to deal with those issues. There is certainly no need to introduce more laws, and I will not repeat the comments that my colleagues have made about the nature of those laws. I will just remind you of what I said right at the beginning: a threat to the cohesive nature of the communities we live in is something you need to take on board. Laws already exist to deal with all of that type—
Len McCluskey: What has that got to do with the Bill? If they feel intimidated and there are incidents of vandalism, I assume they bring that to the attention of the authorities, who will deal with it. It is certainly nothing to do with trade unionism or the right to strike: the right to exercise our democratic views to an employer. It has really got nothing to do with us and nothing to do with the Bill.
Sir Paul Kenny: I am not privy to that particular evidence that was given to you—I would love to see it—but it seems to be four or five years old and I would have thought in those four or five years that the criminal acts that you seem to be describing here would have been reported to the police. I wonder what action the police took, because it sounds like individuals were known. Forgive me; I am not trying to be difficult here, but I am wondering where this fits in with our discussion.
Sir Paul Kenny: If that is the question, that is dead easy to answer. I do not know why it had to be prefaced with stuff from four or five years ago. If you say what happens to people in the union who decide, even if they voted in a ballot, to go to work, they go to work. There are already adequate laws covering no victimisation for those individuals. There is nothing in the Bill that adds to that. Sorry, that already exists. Truthfully, I wonder how much knowledge there is in existence about the rules governing trade union bodies. That is already covered. They have a right. If they go to work, they go to work.
Len McCluskey: It is not a question about it being difficult to go to work. The current legislation allows people to go in and out of work. It allows contractors to deliver in and out of work. It allows the striking workers to exercise their right to explain why they are on strike.
If you are talking about evidence-based, I know that my own union was accused of thuggery and intimidation in the INEOS dispute. That complaint was brought by a Conservative MP—a woman whose name I forget at the moment. The result of that was that Police Scotland and the Hampshire police force said there was no case to answer. There was no criminal activity whatever. There was nothing abusive or intimidatory. If you read the headlines in the daily newspapers, you would think the complete opposite, so I ask you to understand the nature of a dispute and the manner in which trade unions try to organise in a disciplined way, because the one thing that we want when our members are out on strike is to get them back into work. We want a negotiated settlement. And trust me, this Bill will make it more difficult to achieve those types of aims.
Professor Keith Ewing talked of his concerns about the potential future role and appointment of certification officers. Do you have any particular concerns about that?
Len McCluskey: I can answer that question, because we have huge concerns. Again, I am addressing Conservative colleagues on this. The first question I would ask is: what problems are supposed to be addressed by this element on the certification officer? What current problems exist? The certification officer is currently seen as an independent individual, and the current person there is highly respected by both sides of industry. It will no longer be independent.
There are no criteria about who can be the certification officer, and the most damning issue here is that anyone can complain. Any member of the public can complain to the certification officer, who would have the power to go into a union, disrupt its business and crawl all over its business in relation to how it operates. That is in stark contrast to what happens with individuals who are seeking redress at an industrial tribunal. They have to pay £1,200 up front and can be accused of vexatious behaviour. The measure would cause unnecessary upheaval in trade unions.
The slap in the face on top of it is that our members have to pay for it. Can you imagine the number of people who want to complain about Unite or any other union? We would have the certification officer, or whoever they determine, constantly working in our building, clawing over issues, with our members’ money paying for it. The big question that needs to be answered is, “What are the problems?” Why is this bit about the certification officer in the Bill? I have never heard any criticism of the certification officer’s current methods.
Frances O'Grady: With the Chair’s agreement, I am happy to add to that. As Len has pointed out, I suspect that these are some of the aspects of the Bill that David Davis was suggesting were more appropriate to Franco’s Spain than a modern democracy such as Britain. Many people are extremely worried about the idea that a certification officer can respond to complaints by employers, have the power to seize documents from union offices, impose fines and so on. The idea that the CO could, in real time, send inspectors down to picket lines does not feel like a good use of our money, given that we are also expected to pay for the privilege. It is taking industrial relations into territory that would be poisonous for both employers and unions.
Perhaps we also need to make it clear for the record that the total number of disputes that took place in Britain last year was just over 150, with a tiny proportion of days lost as a result. You have to come back to asking, “What is the problem that we are trying to crack here?” As a Financial Times leader pointed out, it smacks of the Government crossing a road to pick a fight.
Dave Prentis: Can I supplement that? There were 160 disputes and only 640 ballots—four times the number of disputes—because we negotiated settlements before announcing a ballot. The ballots are not the important thing. It is about the settlements that we reached that then led to less industrial action.
There are three major Acts of Parliament covering what we do. We are the most regulated sector within the economy, if not the western world. This merely adds to that over-regulation. It is an over-burden for which there is no need. It shows the views of the people who are putting the Bill forward. There is absolutely no need for the certification officer to have additional roles. We are well policed by them already, if not too well.
Sir Paul Kenny: I am yet to have any understanding of the justification for the certification officer’s additional powers. The powers are already wide-ranging, and I do not understand the justification, other than to shackle or restrict the ability of unions to do their job. I thought that this Government were about deregulation, but it appears that they are until it comes to unions, which they want to regulate through the teeth.
Mr McCluskey, when Nusrat Ghani asked you a question a bit earlier on, you referred to a case that she raised and you alluded to evidence of the case and that there was no action by the police, who noted that no action was needed. Could you send the Committee a note about that? It would be quite useful to Members on both sides when they come to judge the evidence that has been given.
I think it was you, Mr Prentis, who mentioned productivity earlier on. I accept that your organisations often prevent strikes, but they do happen. Do you accept that when millions of people are out of the workplace because of a strike or when a strike is threatened—we have heard a lot about the threat of strikes being disruptive to lives and businesses—it will inevitably have an impact on productivity?
Dave Prentis: It will inevitably have an impact, otherwise why would the workers be doing it? The issue is when you take the action. You take it as a final resort. We represent low-paid women, nearly 1 million of them, and they cannot afford to miss a day’s pay. It must take something drastically wrong and unfair. They are not motivated by aggrandisement. Something happening to them that is unfair will motivate a low-paid woman public service worker to vote for industrial action.
We cannot just talk about the effect on the public and ignore the effect on the individual striker, because they are doing it for a real reason: they feel very aggrieved about how they have been treated. They have to have the ability to seek a settlement. If we cannot get settlements, the right for workers to withdraw their labour is obviously a final resort that is allowed in the ILO conventions, which Frances has been talking about. It is impossible to take industrial action that does not have some effect on people, otherwise why take it?
If you are talking about productivity, productivity is everything that happens during the course of a year. For our members, on average, a member will take action every 15 years, yet we are obsessing over productivity. The issue with productivity is getting more skilled, higher-paid workers within our environments and ensuring that people are well treated and can contribute. It is about having the investment to increase productivity—that is not necessarily coming through—and having a fairer society where people want to contribute. You cannot connect productivity with the small number of days that are lost.
Many of whom will be mothers or have other caring responsibilities, perhaps for other family members. In the TUC submission, where you are talking about the notice period, you say that it will needlessly delay the start of industrial action. Do you not recognise that for those women, they might need those 14 days to arrange extra care for their dependants? Extending the period from seven days to 14 days might be useful for them, because of the disruption.
Frances O'Grady: I am not aware that the Bill is only targeting the 14-day notice period in areas where mothers will be affected by the strike. It is a false prospectus. Let us be clear about this: the extension of the notice period is designed to reduce momentum and participation in the strike and weaken the union’s hand.
With your agreement, I will make a very small point on productivity, on which I can give you some hard evidence. The number of days lost through industrial action during the past year adds up to just one half of one ten-thousandth of a percent of all working days. To put that in perspective, the number of days lost through issues around health, safety and wellbeing is 450 times that—
Frances O'Grady: I just wanted to make the point that our union representatives play an absolutely critical role in delivering higher productivity in the workplace, including through health and safety. A number of those strikes are directly relevant to issues, such as health and safety, that in the long run are important for business and the economy, as well as for working people. Again, I think you have to understand that trade union activity and strength actually improves Britain’s productivity by creating safer, healthier and better trained workforces.
I wonder, Ms O'Grady, whether you can send us the stats you have been referring to. If you can send it to the members of the Committee, we will distribute it on either side.
I think all four of you have an interest in public services. Obviously, you will be aware, as was alluded to at the start, that not all UK employers, including the devolved Administrations, support the Bill and the impacts it will have. Can I ask each of you whether you believe that all public sector employers in the UK should either provide their consent to parts or all of the Bill or get opt-outs to parts or all of the Bill?
Len McCluskey: First, it is a serious issue that, again, I have raised publicly and Conservative members of this Committee will want to take it on board. At the general election, the Conservative party ran part of its campaign on English votes for English laws. The reality that we find with this Bill currently is that the Scottish Parliament has indicated that it will not implement the Bill; Stormont has indicated that it will not implement the Bill; and the Welsh Assembly voted yesterday not to implement this Bill. There is a real danger that English workers will be the worst treated workers not only in the whole of Europe, but indeed in the British Isles themselves. That is what is deeply divisive. The direct answer to your question is, yes, we know that there are local authorities and employers right throughout the British Isles who are indicating that they will not implement this measure, and certainly the devolved powers should have that view.
I will finish on a quick point, which is again for colleagues on the Conservative side. I deal with every single major manufacturing company within our nations—blue chip companies. Not a single CEO of any of those companies is in favour of this Bill, and I ask that that is taken seriously on board. So, yes, I am in favour of an independent approach to this.
Sir Paul Kenny: I will be quick. I think the consent issue is quite clear.
Just dealing with the issue about check-off, as it is commonly called, effectively it will still remain lawful. If the wagons roll on for a deduction to be made to just about any organisation—to the bowling club, to Uncle Ben’s shop, to any appeal whatsoever—despite all the arguments about how difficult it is and costly, it seems the only organisations that will not be allowed to use that facility are trade unions. I am sort of getting the drift that someone has got it in for me, you know? Basically, when you look at it like that, you cannot justify that argument.
Also, in terms of facilities, there are statistics coming out of the walls about the job that people do in saving so much in employers’ time: stopping stuff going through to litigation, dealing with health and safety issues and dealing with grievances. You know, kettles have spouts for a reason and you are trying to put a sock in it, and that will not do. That is not the way to deal with genuine grievances and disputes. So it is one of those occasions when I am beginning to think that devolution is a pretty good idea.
Dave Prentis: I will concentrate on check-off and sign-off, as I did at the beginning, and I will remind you that we have 7,242 employers who operate check-off systems and with whom we have agreements on time off. Not a single one of those employers has said anything in relation to this Bill that would lead you to believe that they want this blanket ending of check-off arrangements. In fact, nobody was asked before the Bill was put together. The NHS employers were not asked; the local government employers were not asked; individual employers were not asked. It takes away all these ideas of localism and the idea that employers should have a right to talk to trade unions or not, as they feel, and reach agreements that they wish to have.
The Bill brings in draconian central planning, and all the discussion has been not just about devolution within the nations of Britain—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—but also in English regions and the combined authorities. Combined authorities will be allowed to do everything, but what will be taken away from them is the right to talk to their staff trade unions about the arrangements that they want in place, either for check-off or not for check-off.
At the moment, any employer can withdraw check-off; it is in their gift. There is nothing in law that prevents them from doing that, and it would be virtually impossible to take industrial action to stop them doing it. And some employers do take us off check-off. Wandsworth did; one of the new private probation companies has just done it; and we deal with it as a local issue, because it is an issue between us and that employer, and maybe we will reach compromises. But the thing I will say, which seems to have been forgotten completely, is that we pay for these check-off arrangements. They are not the gift of the employer; it is not costing the taxpayer money.
I will give you examples: Fife Council and East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust. Both of them cost us at 5% for collecting it, and it does not cost them anything like 5%. Bradford City Council charges £38,000—that is the cost of running our social workers. You end check-off and you are talking away one and a half social workers in Bradford. Derbyshire County Council charges around £5,000 a quarter. Others will hold on to the money for three months, put it in the bank account, get interest on it—it is small at the moment, but it is usually fairly big—and then give us the money and they make arrangements from it.
What I will say is I do not believe that any taxpayer should pay for this arrangement. Where we do have agreements, we are more than willing to pay a commercial amount of money to have these arrangements stay in place. Taxpayers should not pay, but neither should central Government issue a diktat saying that employers are doing something unlawful in reaching an agreement with their local union reps about the collection from source of union dues when there are so many different areas where the member of staff can have deductions from salary, including MPs and councillors, which are denied to our members for reasons that we do not understand.
Mr Prentis, can you also get the detail of that and send it to the Committee? We will distribute it. It has been a very useful piece of information and I think both sides would welcome it.
I well understand that. It is not your view; it is the evidence that you have come up with that we need the detail of for consideration. We have got eight minutes left and we have still got four questioners to ask their questions and get a reply, so could we be more succinct on both sides—the interviewees and the Members?
I was a public sector worker myself for 17 years, and although you may feel that we have got it in for you on this side of the Committee, I learnt a certain amount about industrial relations in that time and I am fully aware that we are very lucky to have giants of negotiation strategy in front of us, helping us with this Bill.
Mr McCluskey, in a way that does not surprise me at all, has put forward his position in writing and he has given his position is on thresholds: 50% if he gets e-balloting—[Interruption.] Sorry, workplace balloting. Do the other three of you share that position?
Dave Prentis: I do not believe that there is a need for thresholds. If the aim is to increase participation—that was the pretence behind it—I believe in moving to e-balloting, but, more than that, workplace balloting. Do not make the assumption that all of our members have got access to computers. Our refuse collectors do not sit at a computer all day; they are out on the streets, collecting our rubbish, as so many other public service workers are.
We do want to bring in e-balloting. We do want a safe computer in the workplace, but we also want workplace balloting. You may have been a member of my union in the past, but I come from a union that, before our merger in ’93, we always had secret postal ballots that went to the workplace and the turnout was 70%. As soon as Thatcher’s law came in that said that they had got to go to home addresses, it dropped to 22%.
Sir Paul Kenny: My position is that no vote should not count, but that is a principled position I can hold. What Len McCluskey has done is put down a challenge: if people are serious about improving participation, come and talk. That may mean people have to move their principled positions, but I always understood that the end result was to find something workable and real. I do not know where you are going to put me down.
Frances O'Grady: No, and I do not think the Government are clear either. In particular, the proposal that so-called ancillary roles could be included is extremely interesting but has yet to be defined. It makes it very difficult to have an intelligent discussion about this aspect of the Bill when we do not even know what jobs and functions could be covered.
To give a practical example, if a call centre is providing public services as part of its work and for parts of those call centre workers’ jobs, but it is based in the private sector, does it fall under the 50% threshold or the 40% threshold? Quite genuinely, how are unions supposed to run a lawful ballot when it is simply not clear how that would work in the real world? So far, we have not had an answer to those questions. It could be cleaners, call centre workers, ancillary staff—all sorts of job could be covered—but I am not sure how the Government’s proposals are supposed to work in the private sector that is providing public services.
Dave Prentis: It will be a nightmare, and it will be a goldmine for solicitors because for every work group we try to define, it will be fought out in the courts. None of us want that, surely. It is so ambiguous and so badly worded that it is difficult to find out how essential these people who are caught are. At the moment, it catches teaching assistants, who work in our schools at different levels, may only work at term time and, in many cases, are abused in the way they are treated, yet they may find themselves caught by this idea of important public services. It is ill defined and will lead to litigation going on for many, many months around disputes. Instead of trying to solve the disputes, we will be involved in fighting out in the courts whether or not we should be balloting, or whether we need an 80% majority or half of the members actually voting. It is going to be an absolute nightmare for industrial relations in public services.
Frances O'Grady: What is clear is that the Government are going way beyond any international definition of an essential service. International bodies are very clear that it is not enough to say you are further restricting strike action purely because of—however bad it is, however inconvenient and however disruptive to other businesses, that in itself cannot constitute a reason for further restrictions on the right to strike in certain sectors. In any case, the Government’s definition—carefully worded, I think—of important services goes way beyond any international definition of “essential”.
Frances, you talked about the international context. We heard factual comparisons from Amnesty and Liberty. Obviously, it was David Davis who compared parts of the Bill to Franco’s Spain. If the Bill was enacted as it stands, how would we compare internationally? Which countries would we find ourselves alongside?
Paul and Len, we took verbal evidence this morning from David Palmer-Jones, the chief executive of SITA UK. He made what I regard as very serious allegations about officers from GMB, Unite and UCATT. Obviously, the latter are not present, so I cannot put the allegations to them. He was talking about intimidation at what he said was picketing, but, upon further questioning, turned out to be demonstrations in Teesside relating to issues with SITA. He said that officials of your unions tacitly approved of the tactics deployed—that is, intimidation—and were actively supporting them. I wanted to give you the opportunity to share your thoughts on that.
Sir Paul Kenny: I do not know what he said to you, but if he wants to write to me, I am happy to look into those concerns. I can tell you that Teesside is a bit of a flashpoint because it involves a company that is importing labour and paying them below the market rate, denying jobs to local people. That is always a difficult situation and there are protests about that. They come from a wide variety of people, including us. I checked yesterday what the situation was—I try to stay in touch with what I think are difficult areas—and I was told that there had been absolutely no arrests and that relations with the police were okay, because I ask those questions. I was told that if ever there is an issue, the inspector talks to whoever the group are, exactly as I described earlier, and if there are any concerns, they are relayed and then dealt with by the people on the ground.
I realise that that has been said to you and I appreciate the fact that you have put it to me. I have absolutely no knowledge of it. I would love to see some substantive evidence of it, and if there was some, we would deal with it. My latest check—presumably, the police can confirm this—is that there has not been any evidence. If there was any sort of behaviour like this, I expect the police would step in. They are there when they are needed, but relationships are pretty good, as I understand it. The dispute has been on for a while now, and to my knowledge not a single person has been charged with any sort of behaviour like this at all.
Forgive me if I am a bit sceptical of people coming along and saying, “At the bottom of the garden there’s lots of fairies.” There may be, but I have not seen them. I would like to see them before I start to legislate against them.
Len McCluskey: Like Paul, I try to keep abreast of sensitive issues, and this is a really sensitive one. It cuts to the very cohesion I was talking about in our society, because people are being brought in—migrant workers—and being asked to work at way below the national rates negotiated with employers. The company itself has a lot to answer for.
I checked recently on the newsreels, and, talking about this dispute, a spokesman for the police said that
“officers then spoke with members of the group and facilitated a peaceful protest while working to minimise disruption to residents and businesses in the area.”
That sums up the way we would expect to conduct our business.
Thank you. That brings us to the end of the evidence session. We are grateful for your attendance. You are obviously very busy people, representing an awful lot of people, so we are grateful that you did not send anyone else but came yourself.
Sir Paul Kenny: I beg your pardon, but if I could make one last point, this is it. We spent about three years of parliamentary time discussing whether we were going to charge for plastic bags; we have spent weeks talking about these major changes. None of us knows the implications of many of the questions you have asked. It seems that carrier bags are more important than the future of industrial relations and rights of workers in this country.