Examination of Witnesses

Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 15 October 2015.

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Nick Boles MP and Matthew Hancock MP gave evidence.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield 4:23, 15 October 2015

Order. We now come to our final session for today, in which we will hear oral evidence from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Cabinet Office. This session will last until about 5 o’clock. I know that you both know the drill very well because you have done Bills before. Minister, you have been here throughout, which is not usual for some Ministers. We are going to try to get through this as best we can, and the best way to do that is to be as succinct as possible. We recognise that you want to put on record various stuff that you have got from the Department, but please leave us enough time, because the whole purpose of this is to try to get evidence from you and ask you questions. Without further ado, Mr Boles, would you like to start?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

Thank you, Sir Alan. It is a pleasure to be in the hot seat now, rather than in the stands. I am going to give a brief opening statement, if that is okay—I will try to be very brief—on the main measures in the Bill, and then my colleague and friend Mr Hancock will address the facility time and check-off proposals.

We had what I thought was an absolutely gripping evidence session earlier with the four giants of the trade union movement, and we heard some pretty lurid language. The Bill was described as an ideological Eton mess, and as something straight out of the Norman Tebbit playbook. I think we are all aware of, and quite enjoying, the Labour party’s embrace of 1980s retro, which seems to have gripped them since the election. I would love to be able to live up to the caricature that has been painted, and I would love to have my name put, if only in very small type, at the bottom of a Bill that people were talking about in 100 years’ time as one of the most radical and dramatic Bills to change the laws of our country, but I am afraid that I have bad news for the Committee. The bloodcurdling rhetoric, although enjoyable and entertaining, is entirely out of place. The boring reality is that the proposals are modest. They are marginal adjustments to the rules governing strikes and members’ financial contributions. In two years’ time, I fear, this Bill and my role in it will be almost entirely forgotten, except in the privacy of my own bedroom.

I will quickly go through the main measures in the Bill, and then I am happy to take questions. I understand that the strike threshold proposal causes a lot of upset and argument, but the fundamental truth is that most strikes over the past few years would have met the threshold. Members of the Committee made reference to the fact that we did not get an absolutely glowing review from the Regulatory Policy Committee for the impact assessments on the first consultation. I regret that they were done in haste, but it is entirely my responsibility. The main mistake that we made, as the committee pointed out to us, was to make a crude assumption about the effect of the thresholds on the number of future strikes, because in that assessment, rather stupidly, we said that we thought that any strike that would not have passed the threshold in the past clearly would not pass it in future. Well, of course that is not going to happen. What will happen is that unions,  as you have heard, will make great efforts to ensure that the thresholds are met. In most cases, they are already met. I predict to the Committee that the thresholds will produce a small decrease in the number of strikes. Critically, however, there will be a large increase in the perceived legitimacy and validity of strikes among the public affected by them, which is entirely desirable.

We had a discussion on notice periods, and members of the Committee made a good argument for why it is surely not unreasonable to give people two weeks’ notice, rather than a week, of something that could cause them to have to take a day off work or make alternative childcare arrangements.

There has not been much discussion on time limits for ballots, but it is an important measure. Currently, and in the recent past, strikes have taken place in the public sector on ballots that were passed two or three years previously. Frankly, many of the people who voted may no longer be working in the institutions where the strikes are taking place and the issues are surely not at the front of people’s minds. The four-month time limit is therefore reasonable.

There has been much discussion on agency workers, so I simply point out to the Committee that withdrawing, as we propose, the prohibition on the use of agency workers in a strike does not require any agency worker to take up an offer of employment and does not require any employer to seek agency workers in the first place. We heard good arguments about levels of training and tensions with permanent staff. We also heard good arguments as to why, both for individual workers and for employers, it was unlikely to be something that would solve any problems. We simply believe that the option should exist.

Finally, on the much-debated rules regarding the political fund, we take a simple position, which is that if someone wants to support a political party, it is not too much to ask them to tick a box every five years that says, “Yes, I want to support political activity and a political party.” If the political party believes in its arguments as passionately as members of this Committee do, I have absolutely no doubt that it will be able to persuade everyone currently contributing to political funds to carry on doing so.

Matthew Hancock: I am not sure that I can match my colleague for rhetoric, but I want briefly to set out the principles behind the two changes that are the Cabinet Office’s responsibility for policy purposes and therefore mine. First, on facility time, clause 12 simply makes the change that public sector employers need to publish information on the amount of facility time, which is similar to a change that we made in the civil service that saved £52 million in the last Parliament. The first step before making any savings, however, was to publish the information, because we currently do not know how much taxpayer money is spent on facility time. Clause 13 contains a reserved power to be able to limit the facility time taken by union representatives to a percentage of working time, which is similar to the reasonable changes made in the civil service. A legal entitlement to facility time exists at the moment and we do not propose to change that in this Bill.

Secondly, check-off is a name for the relationship in which a trade union member, instead of paying their dues direct to the trade union, pays their dues through the employer taking the payment from the pay cheque  before paying it to the trade union. I think it is reasonable that the trade union relationship, which is valuable in many cases, is one that is between an individual and their trade union. Often, one of the primary purposes of trade unions is to mediate on behalf of their members. It is old-fashioned to think that the payment from one to the other needs to be intermediated by the very employer with whom the trade union is often the interlocutor, on behalf of the member.

These are reasonable changes. We have made them in the civil service, and the Bill simply proposes to broaden the principles and apply them to the public sector as a whole.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Thanks very much. It is true that when every Member of Parliament is elected, then takes the oath and signs the book, they become seasoned politicians. I ask Members on both sides of the Committee to direct their questions to the appropriate Minister, rather than the collective, otherwise we will get very few answers done.

Q 403

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

We have heard some pretty interesting evidence during the course of these two sittings, and of course, on Second Reading and outside this House as well. We are in a situation where many Government witnesses could not appear to find reasons for the Bill, did not appear to have read or to understand parts of it, and certainly could not justify it. There have been passenger bodies who were not willing to comment on it; the police, who think parts of it are unworkable; the unions, who obviously do not want it; civil liberties organisations, who do not want it; legal experts, who do not want it and think it violates various conventions; and devolved Governments, who do not think they are going to give their legislative consent for significant parts of the Bill to go forward. So where was this dreamt up? Was it done by Minister Hancock? Was it in Minister Boles’s bedroom? Or was it the Chancellor? We seem to have a Bill without a purpose and without a need that appears to be largely unworkable. How was this dreamt up?

Nick Boles: Well, Mr Doughty, I am sure you remember—you were paying as close attention as I was—the evidence that was given by the Confederation of British Industry. The director general or secretary general—whatever he is called—John Cridland made it clear that it was a policy that the CBI had adopted five years ago and had been campaigning on for five years. We in the Conservative party think that the business community is important and should be listened to. You will also be aware that in the last five years, in which we were in government in coalition, there were a number of strikes—I must always emphasise that these are the great exception to strikes in general—that caused huge disruption to members of the public who have no alternative means of securing the service that the organisations offer.

Nick Boles: I am just going to finish, Mr Doughty. Those strikes cause great disruption to members of the public, and they did take place either on very old ballots, or on very old ballots that were also secured by a very low turnout. Therefore, we have put together these proposals, which we think the public support.

Q 404

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

We have heard the myth of mass industrial action that the Government are presenting, when the facts simply do not bear that out. It is important that we use the latest evidence—

Nick Boles: Did you hear me say “mass industrial action”? I do not think I said that. I said it was very much a minority of industrial action.

Q 405

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

Yes, but that is not the impression created by Ministers. In the media, we had Minister Hancock going out over the summer talking about—[ Interruption. ] I have here what Minister Hancock said over the summer. He was talking about having “hit squads” to deal with strikes. He said:

“We are ready to use the Cobra system if there are strikes. We are ready to respond”— to a wave of industrial action. Talk about 1980s rhetoric—that is exactly what we are getting from Minister Hancock. Let me return to the facts. The Ministers should be familiar—

Matthew Hancock: Hold on.

Q 406

Matthew Hancock: You are confusing the difference between headlines and what I said in that case.

Matthew Hancock: Hold on, because you have just accepted that you had moved away from the facts and are now having to return to them, and I look forward to that. There is one further thing that motivates some of the changes in this Bill, and I know it is not something that the Labour party cares much about.

Q 407

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

Minister, did you say the things that were reported in the summer?

Matthew Hancock: In the last Parliament, in the civil service, which is about a tenth of the public sector by headcount, the changes proposed in this Bill, which would be enabled as reserve powers in this Bill, saved over £50 million. I know that saving and looking after taxpayers’ money is something that different MPs care about more or less, but I think it is important—and I know it is important to the general public—that we run public services as effectively and efficiently as possible. Saving taxpayers’ money is important, and at the moment we do not know how much taxpayers’ money is spent.

Q 408

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

Minister, we will come to the potential costs of the Bill in due course. Given that you are speaking about the public sector and that you wanted to return to facts, could you tell me how many working days were lost due to industrial action in the past six months, based on the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics? What proportion is that of the overall number of working days in the public sector?

Nick Boles: Sir Alan, you may remember, though of course you have not been chairing all the sessions, and other Committee members will certainly remember that,  on the first day of evidence, we had a lively debate about the difference between direct impacts of days lost—we have always accepted and been very clear that the number of days lost is low, historically; that is very welcome—and the indirect impacts on people who have to completely reorganise their lives because the bus they use to get to work is not running or the school to which their children normally go of a morning is closed.

That is what we are focusing on, and we have been explicit: this is not trying to dramatically reduce the number of days lost to strikes. We have never said it is. We have acknowledged that the number of those days is low. We have said that we are trying to reduce the impact of strikes with low support on members of the public. Their days lost and their disruption is not measured by the ONS. I would love it to be measured by the ONS, though I suspect it might be quite challenging to capture those data. It is a real thing. You just have to ask the public what they think of our proposals, and they clearly support them.

Q 409

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

So we are making a Bill based on evidence that the Minister admits does not exist. The British Chambers of Commerce and the Confederation of British Industry could not provide that evidence either. I have the facts: for the public administration, defence and social security sector, 145,400 working days were lost to strikes in the six months before August 2015, according to the latest ONS statistics. The total number of working days in a year is 393,580,000. The days lost to strikes are less than 1%; it is a tiny proportion.

Nick Boles: It will not come as a surprise to any member of the Committee that the Labour party is not interested in what the public think about the situations with which they are faced. This idea that everything important in life is captured in an ONS statistic is, frankly, perhaps what has led the Labour party to its current position. We take the view that when the public say they do not like being disrupted, they do not like having to miss work and they do not like having to look after their children mid-week because a strike that took place on 37% turnout closes the school their child goes to, we should pay attention. These proposals have been supported by a great majority of the public when tested in opinion polls, and we are doing the public’s bidding on this.

Q 410

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

With respect, Minister, nobody likes being disrupted. We have heard repeatedly from witnesses that industrial action is always a last resort. We have also heard extensively about how unions put in extensive measures, particularly when there are health and safety issues and life and limb are at risk, to deal with that and ensure the public are not adversely affected. Whether you look at the TfL figures for the underground or the health and safety figures that Frances O'Grady mentioned, we know that the days lost or disrupted for citizens and customers in this country are vastly outnumbered by those lost due to causes other than industrial action. This is a huge sledgehammer to crack a relatively small nut.

I want to ask a few specific legal questions of Mr Boles and of Mr Hancock, given the impact on the areas he covers. We have heard clearly about the Bill’s potential conflict with the devolution settlement. We heard very  clear evidence from both the Welsh and Scottish Governments that they would consider withholding legislative consent and that they believe this could lead to significant challenges. We have also heard about potential breaches of international conventions, let alone breaching principles of natural justice.

We talked about costs to the taxpayer. Given the cost to the taxpayer of, for example, the Supreme Court case that the Welsh Government were involved in with the UK Government over the Agricultural Wages Board, what estimate have the Law Officers made of the potential legal cost to the Government as a result of this legislation being challenged in its current form?

Nick Boles: I am glad to say the Law Officers have advised us that all the proposals in the Bill are entirely compatible with both devolution law and the European convention, so we are not anticipating legal costs to fight. If, of course, trade unions or others want to challenge, we will defend robustly our proposals, but we are absolutely satisfied that they abide by all the conventions that apply.

Q 411

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

Do you plan to go back to them, given some of the evidence that has been presented and the very public positions of the Scottish and Welsh Governments?

Nick Boles: No, because, as I think you will remember, the representatives of the two Governments did accept, although grudgingly, that employment is currently a matter that is reserved to the UK Parliament, so it is entirely proper for us to make changes to employment rules and apply them across the United Kingdom. They might prefer it was otherwise, but they accepted that that is the current legal position.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Ms O'Grady spoke on this matter and promised to provide written evidence to all Committee members, so I suspect it will come up again when line-by-line scrutiny gets under way.

Q 412

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

On balloting, the Minister and other witnesses have referred extensively to the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy in advancing an argument against the use of e-balloting that I think most members of the public would find absolutely nonsensical, given that if we want to increase participation, we should increase the methods by which people can participate. The evidence to the commission from the Open Rights Group, which I think influenced what the Minister has been saying, made it clear that it was based on a comparison between general election voting in polling stations and online voting. The evidence did not consider the current union context of postal ballots under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, so it is not relevant to the discussion of the Bill. Why does the Minister keep citing the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy as evidence to stand in the way of e-balloting?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I do not know why voting in a strike ballot is essentially different from voting in other elections. We have been very clear about our position and the Prime Minister has replied to Mr McCluskey’s letter to make it clear that, as I have said several times—I certainly said it in the wind-up on Second Reading—we do not have an in-principle objection to the exploration of alternative methods of voting, including e-balloting,  but we have some practical concerns that were set out very well in the evidence from the Open Rights Group and also in other discussions about various forms of voter identity protection, voter fraud and the like. If those practical objections can be overcome, this question might well be revisited in future, but we are not currently satisfied that voting can be done safely online in these elections. That may well change.

Q 413

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

Have you taken advice from the Electoral Reform Society? It advises that, in 2014 and 2015, the Nationwide building society, Yorkshire building society, the Co-operative Group, the British Medical Association, the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales—the list goes on and on—have all used these methods. Most members of the public listening to this debate will struggle to understand why the Government are not willing to come forward, have a sensible discussion about e-balloting and secure workplace balloting, to which I can see no objections whatever, and get to a solution.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

The hon. Gentleman has started that debate, Sir Alan, and I am sure that this is not the end of it. We will debate the different forms of voting and the practical objections, or otherwise, to them. All we are saying are that our concerns, which we have not just made up—they are shared by others, independent of Government, and were elaborated upon in the Speaker’s commission, which met only last year—have to be overcome. Frankly, internal elections in organisations to choose office-holders have to meet a much lower test than elections that involve the withdrawal of labour, the closure of services and great disruption to the public, so we are right to attach a higher level of demand—

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

But it is fine for the annual general meetings of major financial organisations.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

I think we have tested this enough. We will move on, because we have very little time remaining and there are Members on both sides who want to ask questions. These issues will be tested in Committee when we reach that part of the Bill and more evidence is presented.

Q 414

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

It is clear from the evidence we have heard that a charge is being made that your proposals go against the International Labour Organisation. Would you like to deal with that now?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

There is no question but that representations have been made to the ILO, and within ILO discussions, that some of the restrictions that we propose could conflict with ILO provisions. What is clear is that the governing body of the ILO has never accepted those arguments. Having looked at all the governing body’s comments and decisions, we are entirely satisfied that nothing that we propose would conflict with them. Reference has been made to the European Economic and Social Committee; the truth is that we do not entirely accept its actions and status. It often says things that we and the governing body of the ILO do not agree with.

Q 415

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Like you, I listened intently to John Cridland’s evidence on Tuesday, but the intention of the questions we have been asking has not been to show that the Bill is a pro-business measure. What we have tried to show is the impact of that on parents, patients, carers and commuters. I think we have actually demonstrated that quite effectively. Would you like to comment on how that fits into the purpose of the Bill?

Nick Boles: That is absolutely right. We were always thinking, when drafting the Bill, about what to tell the public when a strike has happened to reassure them. The public support unions’ and individuals’ ability to strike, and they often would like to feel that they have the ability to avail themselves of that right in an extreme situation. There is absolutely no question about it; the public do not support something that withdraws people’s legitimate right to withdraw their labour in a case where they are being badly treated or a dispute that cannot be resolved otherwise. The public are frankly not very impressed when a strike happens that closes schools or bus services on an incredibly low turnout or a ballot that is several years old, and we are responding to that concern.

Q 416

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

Mr Boles, in relation to political funds, I want to outline my discomfort with dealing with this issue via the Trade Union Bill and not through other mechanisms in Parliament. Political funding should be dealt with across the board. I also point out to you that it is not just about those trade unions that fund the Labour party—those unions are in the minority, actually—but a trade union’s ability to campaign to change Government policies. The general secretary of the PCS made that point. Do you not think that it is inappropriate to deal with political funds only through this Bill and not to look at political funding arrangements across the board?

Nick Boles: I do not, and perhaps I could explain why. We have heard about the contributions that the political funds made to HOPE not hate. We certainly heard that on Second Reading. We have heard of other very worthwhile causes that are supported by unions’ political funds, but we live in a society, thank God, where there is an amazing proliferation of charities and campaign groups that are successfully and endlessly raising money from members of the public. They are lobbying for all sorts of changes in laws and practices here and around the world. It does not seem to me to be an unfair restriction or to be likely in any way to undermine the support for fantastic organisations, such as HOPE not hate, to say that if an individual wants to contribute part of their income towards an organisation, they should make an active choice to do so. That will not choke off any worthwhile campaigning activity in this country, where there is a huge array of it happening already.

Q 417

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

That breaches the Churchill convention, do you not agree? What you propose in the Bill breaches what has been referred to as the Churchill convention.

Nick Boles: Yes, there was a gentleman, a member of the Labour party, who gave extensive and fluent evidence earlier this morning, which we were all gripped by. He referred to a Churchill convention. Winston Churchill was a great man who said many great things, but not everything he said necessarily becomes a constitutional convention.

Q 418

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

Professor Ewing also referred to the Churchill convention.

Nick Boles: Yes, he would, wouldn’t he?

Q 419

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

Surely employers, when they are given notice of the ballot—currently, it is a seven-day period—at that point they know that there is a potential for industrial action, usually 45 days down the line. Why would you want to change the strike action period from seven days to 14?

Nick Boles: Again, this is a very revealing question and, I hope, a revealing answer. This is less about the employers than it is about the public. The public are not going to know, necessarily, because frankly we do not all read the papers or listen to the radio every day, when notice of a ballot has been given. What they will know is when a union that effectively controls a service on which they rely will have a strike. That is when the public, as colleagues of mine have adequately described, will know. Frankly, it could make a huge difference to the public if they had two weeks’ warning, rather than a week’s warning, to have to arrange emergency childcare because their school is going to close.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

I appeal to Members that we have 10 minutes or so left and five speakers. Could both Members and Ministers please be a bit more succinct?

Q 420

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

I will just ask Mr Hancock one question. Why have the devolved Administrations not been consulted or contacted by you in relation to facility time or check-off? Surely, they should have the right to maintain good industrial relations by keeping those things in place.

Matthew Hancock: The reason is that this area of policy is reserved, as confirmed by the Smith commission.

Q 421

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

Industrial relations is not reserved. That is the point. Surely, the Scottish and Welsh Governments have the right to make a policy decision on industrial relations in terms of check-off and facility time.

Matthew Hancock: This is a question of labour market policy. Labour market policy is reserved, as confirmed by Smith.

Q 422

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

So it is okay for a staff association to use check-off, but not a trade union?

Matthew Hancock: It is very different. There is a difference between deducting something from source when it is paid to an external and outside body compared with when it is part of a wider set of non-pecuniary remuneration such as a staff association or, indeed, a pension. These are two completely separate matters.

Q 423

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

Charities, credit unions—these all come off employees’ salaries. I am aware of many organisations that are external bodies that get check-off arrangements. Are you looking at them as well?

Matthew Hancock: No. It is perfectly reasonable. For instance, your pension, which is often deducted at source, is completely different. It is part of your non-cash benefits of being in work. If you look at each item on its merits, in a modern trade union system and a modern labour market—this is an area of labour market policy—it is perfectly reasonable and sensible that the relationship between a union and its members is just that and not one that is intermediated by the employer.

Q 424

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

I think the Minister needs to do more research on this.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Let me appeal once more, finally, to Members. You only have a few minutes left and five Members want to ask questions. To be fair to each other, make it short and make the replies short, too.

Q 425

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

The Bill aims to modernise trade unions in just the way that work is modernised. Very few people now get a pay packet; the salary goes into your bank account. Surely, in that way, any worker should be able to choose whether they want to subscribe to a union or which union they want to subscribe to. That is why there needs to be a change in check-off.

Matthew Hancock: I agree with that and I will add something to it. It improves public protection because it ensures that it is an active choice of the member to be a member of the union, rather than getting the form in a pile of paperwork on day one, signing it off and the money always going out of your pay cheque before you receive it.

On check-off, I reassure Members about how sensible this change is by quoting the PCS union, which is the biggest union in the civil service. As of this morning, its website said:

“It’s quick and easy to sign up for direct debit—you can do it online in a couple of minutes… We are asking all members to do something very simple but very important—get ready to switch payment of your subs to direct debit. It only takes a few minutes”.

That demonstrates that this is not something that people should overreact to. Rather, it is a perfectly sensible change that has taken place largely already within the civil service. The PCS, which is the union that is mostly affected, confirms on its website that it is very simple and only takes a few minutes.

Q 426

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Opposition Whip (Commons)

In the previous session, we discussed the definition of important public services. From talking with Frances O'Grady, it seems that trade unions obviously are not clear who is going to be affected. Dave Prentis said he thought it was a “nightmare”, “ill defined” and would “lead to litigation”. Will we have a chance to debate these regulations and why have they had no consultation with you about what this will mean to them in practice?

Nick Boles: To correct you, we have had consultation, which is why it is not yet clear. The consultation only closed as the other consultations did. It is one of those funny things in government: you either get into trouble for not being specific, or you get into trouble for not having consulted. We wanted to say that we are clear about the sectors that this should apply to—health, education, transport, fire, nuclear decommissioning and border control. Then the question is, is it right that it should apply to anybody and everybody working within those sectors, whether in the private sectors, ancillary jobs or core jobs? Is there a practical way of narrowing down? We consulted on this point. We have had a lot of responses to the consultation. We will bring forward specific proposals before the legislation has received Royal Assent.

Q 427

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Opposition Whip (Commons)

It is just me, then. Why, then, have we not seen the draft regulations before now?

Nick Boles: Because we were waiting to analyse the very, very substantial response to the consultation that finished, I think, only at the beginning of September.

Q 428

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

I have two very brief questions, the first of which is for the Minister for Skills. Minister, you have been very clear that you respect the right to strike, as we all do, and that this Bill does not, despite some alarmist suggestions, remove that right. The NASUWT actually acknowledged in its evidence that strikes would continue. Would it be a fair characterisation to say that it ensures that all the people and families currently at risk of having their daily and working lives significantly disrupted by strike action on a very low turnout will have a slightly more balanced set of protections to ensure that strikes have genuine support?

Nick Boles: Yes, exactly. The NASUWT should know well, because there have been strikes in the teaching profession on a very low turnout and on ancient ballots. Ultimately, that just really irritates people. They accept that they are going to be disrupted in a legitimate strike; they just want to know that it is at least recent and that enough people supported it.

Q 429

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

I also have a quick question to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, reflecting on the comments that were attributed to him over the summer. My recollection—I hope he will correct me and clarify this—is that he was saying, quite rightly, that if there were a major strike that would significantly impact people’s daily and working lives, the Government would do what we would expect them to do and ensure that they put the British public first and do what they could to minimise the disruptions. Is that a fair characterisation of what you actually said, Minister?

Matthew Hancock: That is a fair characterisation. It is a remarkable position for the Labour party to come to and a point of political point scoring if they think it is wrong for a Government Minister to say that we will do all we can to protect the public from the disruption of major strikes. This was in the context of Len McCluskey calling for a general strike and a series of unions making a lot of noise about that. It is perfectly reasonable for the Government to use their co-ordinating facilities to ensure that the response to a strike—especially a generalised and widespread strike—is as well co-ordinated and reasonable as possible. The idea that a Government should not use such facilities is, frankly, ludicrous.

On the same point, I would add one other thing. This is an evidence session, so it is important to bring a few facts to bear. When Mr Doughty talked about the number of working days lost, it struck me that there was something odd about saying “over the last six months”, because that is a very unusual way of using statistics. It rankled because it did not quite ring true, and yesterday I read the labour market statistics that the Office for National Statistics published. In 2011, 1.39 million working days were lost from labour disputes. In 2014, 788,000 working days were lost. When there is further debate on this, which no doubt there will be in Committee, people should probably use the ONS statistics, rather than the odd attribution made by Mr Doughty.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

If both sides are not being helpful, I am going to be. I want to ensure that the Members who are left to ask questions can ask questions. If they are not replied to in this Committee, I will ask the two Ministers  to go away and reply to them in writing. I am going to ask Members to be very succinct in what they are asking for.

Q 430

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

We are clearly in the throes of going through the Bill. Do you not think it is a bit odd, given that this is an evidence session, that we are going through the Committee stage of an important Bill without seeing the evidence that has been thrown up by the consultations that are clearly related to the enactment of the Bill? Is that not a bit perverse?

Nick Boles: No, because the consultations that we have been conducting have been about either the proposals that are not in the Bill—the thing that has got everyone very excited about restrictions on online campaigning was a question in a consultation about whether current offences sufficiently captured any criminality that might take place online. We have asked that question; the responses have come back; and we will be concluding and bringing that forward to the Committee. It has not been about evidence.

On the important services sectors, we have been very clear which sectors we think should be in the Bill—that was in our manifesto in most part. The only question has been: should it be all workers or some? That is a classic matter to settle through regulations, but we will be bringing forward our proposals before Royal Assent, so that everyone can discuss the detail of the regulations as well as the main measures in the Bill.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Minister, I do not want you to reply orally to the following questions; I want you to reply in writing, if you can. That is the only way that we will get the questions in.

Q 431

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

You mentioned non-cash benefits of work. Would you not accept that being a member of a trade union brings non-cash benefits such as legal protection?

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

The Minister will reply in writing.

Q 432

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

I was merely going to quote Roy Rickhuss, the general secretary of Community, which includes a lot of steelworkers, who said on Tuesday to the Committee:

“I do believe a threshold of 50% plus one is fair and reasonable”.––[Official Report, Trade Union Public Bill Committee, 13 October 2015; c. 27, Q66.]

We heard today from Paul Kenny that his position was that he would negotiate and we heard from Mr McCluskey that he is willing—[Interruption.]

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

You get the point. There seems to be growing support for the proposal from some moderate voices.

Nick Boles: I think that is the first time that Len McCluskey has ever been described as a moderate—he might shoot you, Mr Cartlidge.

Q 433

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I have a question and I would be very grateful for an answer in writing from the Minister for the Cabinet Office. The Bill will give powers to extend the facilities time cap to the private sector. Which private sector businesses do you intend to apply that facilities time cap to? Bear in mind that we heard evidence from John Cridland on Tuesday that private sector employers have no strong views or attach any importance to that.

Q 434

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

My question is to Minister Hancock. We heard evidence this afternoon that check-off actually makes a profit for employers in the public sector and figures were quoted about the numbers of workers who were employed as a result of the profit the public sector makes out of that. Will he answer in writing why he thinks it is correct to put people out of work as a result of removing the check-off facility, the obvious consequence of removing funding from the public sector?

Matthew Hancock: I dispute the premise of the question, but I will answer in writing.

Q 435

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

Given what the Minister said, it would be very helpful for the Committee—perhaps you can arrange this, Sir Alan—to have a full compendium of the ONS labour market statistics, including all of the forms of industrial action and how those compare with days lost for other reasons. I think that the Minister is selectively quoting.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Members, that is the end of today’s session. We are very grateful to everyone who participated and the final Ministers in particular.

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

Adjourned till Tuesday 20 October at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

 Written evidence reported to the House

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