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Clause 3 - Ballots: 40% support requirement in important public services

Part of Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 20th October 2015.

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Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 2:45 pm, 20th October 2015

I agree absolutely. I think that sits alongside the comments made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West that the unions want to have a high turnout and that they want to be able to have as much confidence as possible among their members, because of the fact they cannot sanction members for not taking part in the industrial action as agreed. It is important to look at the German example, because statutory thresholds, as proposed by the UK Government, would actually be unconstitutional in Germany. We heard about international comparisons in the oral evidence, and the Bill, in so many respects—this is yet another one—puts us in a very serious place in terms of the international league of whether these measures restrict or infringe on long-established rights. Therefore, we will oppose the clause, because we think it is ill thought out, partisan, open to serious legal challenge, breaches the devolution settlement and will not do anything to better industrial relations.

Amendment 4 is a probing amendment that provides that the 40% threshold should only apply to those who are normally engaged “solely” in the provision of important public services or ancillary activities. We need to discuss this very important issue, and I hope that the Minister can enlighten us on it. The amendment is designed to highlight the problems that unions will face when trying to determine whether the 40% threshold applies. It is not clear whether individuals who spend only part of their time providing important public services will be covered by the 40% yes vote requirement.

Let us take, for example, education unions planning to ballot staff in a school with a sixth form, where they might be involved in the provision of education to young people of different ages. Trade union officials will find it very difficult to assess whether staff who teach both pupils aged under 17 and those in years 12 and 13 are “normally engaged” in providing “important public services”. That will be particularly problematic where teachers’ work schedules vary during the academic year. It is just one of the many implementation problems that I do not think the Government can have seriously thought through if they intend to proceed with the Bill as drafted.

Amendment 5 is also designed to encourage debate. It provides that the 40% yes vote requirement should apply to those employed in the provision of “essential public services” rather than “important public services”. As I have said, the Government’s proposed restrictions extend well beyond the definition of “essential services” recognised by the ILO. The Government claim that the proposed thresholds are justifiable because they do not introduce a complete ban—some would beg to differ—on the right to strike in “important public services”. They therefore argue that the ILO standards do not apply.

However, the Employment Lawyers Association warned the Government against introducing thresholds to services not covered by the ILO definition of “essential services” in its response to the BIS consultation on balloting thresholds. The response continued:

ELA cautions that if the provisions”— in the Bill and any accompanying regulations—

“are not drawn as narrowly as possible then the Government runs the risk of a challenge on the basis that the imposition of the raised thresholds infringes Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Any restrictions on the right to strike must not be greater than necessary to pursue a legitimate aim and…necessary in a democratic society.”

That is why it is important that we look at the ILO definition. It is very tightly defined, referring to public safety and so on. It is very clearly defined in terms of where things would be problematic. The Government are going well beyond that boundary. The ILO has criticised Governments who have introduced thresholds for industrial action ballots. The ILO committee on freedom of association has concluded:

“The requirement of a decision by over half of all the workers involved in order to declare a strike is excessive and could excessively hinder the possibility of carrying out a strike, particularly in large enterprises.”

The ILO has called on Governments who have imposed statutory thresholds to amend their national laws to bring them into closer conformity with the principles of freedom of association. Dare I make some international comparisons? The countries that it has gone after include Bulgaria, Honduras and Nigeria. Does this country really want to be in that territory? Not only are we going well beyond what a near neighbour in the EU—Germany—believes would be unconstitutional, but we will be putting ourselves in the league of countries that are being criticised by the ILO, such as Bulgaria, Honduras and Nigeria. That simply is not good enough.

I come now to amendment 6. The 40% yes vote requirement will apply not only to individuals directly involved in the delivery of important public services, but to individuals normally engaged in

“activities that are ancillary to the provision of important public services.”

As a result, hundreds of thousands of union members working in large parts of the private services sector are likely to be caught by the 40% threshold. The amendment would therefore delete the reference to ancillary activities. Again, it will be very hard to define and identify who is involved in such activities. The Government are clearly trying to apply the provision as widely as possible and certainly well beyond what the ILO would expect.

Further to amendment 5, amendment 9 would define essential public services in line with the ILO definition. We want the wording to mean

“services the interruption of which would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population”.

We have some very serious issues for the Minister to explain. He needs to explain how these passages will be implemented. When we look at international legal comparisons, the potential impact of the measure, the breach that I referred to and the risk of legal challenge, we are experiencing many of the same challenges as we discussed under the last clause, and I hope that the Minister can explain his position.