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 Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central 2:45 pm, 20th October 2015

We have heard numerous submissions in evidence to the Committee, both oral and in writing, that the Government’s definition of “important public services” is at odds with the definition of essential services used in international law, but if we go outside the legal technicality of this broad definition, there are many practical considerations to assess when it comes to important public services and I do not see that the Government have put any thought into those practicalities on the basis of the Bill as drafted.

First, knowing who is deemed to be an important public servant is not as easy as it may seem. The neat categories defined by the Bill might look simple on paper, but they are far less clear in practice and in workplaces up and down the country. My hon. Friend gave us an example about education establishments covering people who are under 16 and those who are over 16. How will that work in practice? How will this legislation work in a sixth-form college with a mix of students, where a teacher could be teaching at a number of levels and with different age groups?

The situation is further muddied by the order-making powers contained within these clauses, which mean that when we come to vote we still will not know what specific roles in each of the six sectors that are in the clause are covered. We are told that the 40% double threshold will apply to private companies supplying public services. It is ironic that the Government have been so desperate to reduce the public sector and outsource these services to private companies so that shareholders can profit, yet when it comes to a trade union dispute, the Government are desperate to bring them back into the public sector setting so that they can impose the double threshold on them. Will the provisions apply to private sector companies that provide goods and services to so-called important public services as ancillary services? Can the Minister tell us whether, for example, private sector commercial provision of school meals to state schools would be caught by clause 3?

Nuclear decommissioning has been included in the Bill, yet this is a heavily unionised sector with a history of excellent industrial relations. Its inclusion seems excessive and counterproductive. There was a suggestion in the consultation published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that management, cleaning and other support services would be included within the definition of important public services, because without them there could be an adverse impact on service provision. It is clear that there is potential within those order-making powers to allow more and more roles within these  sectors to be deemed as “important” and therefore subject to the double threshold. We will end up with threshold creep.

Given everything that we have heard today and in the evidence sessions last week, it bears repeating that it is not legitimate—Amnesty and Liberty witnesses confirmed this—to restrict a fundamental right because it may inconvenience the public or businesses. Of course, no-one wants that to happen, but on every measure we have seen the public support the basic right to strike as a last resort, and these measures make that much more difficult for a large body of working people.

Finally, the logistical and organisational difficulties, alongside the potential for increased costs that this measure presents to trade unions that want to ballot their members, are significant. The industrial landscape after the Bill will mean that some sectors in the same trade union will have different rules applied to them. In some large disputes, unions may simultaneously need to ballot members in “important” and, for want of a better term, “less important” services around exactly the same issues. With the powers that the Government are awarding themselves, who is “important” within those defined sectors could change from ballot to ballot. Have the Government thought about these practicalities? This is all alongside the newly empowered and defined certification officer, who will have new resources to seek out and penalise unions for any mistake around balloting and then charge them for the luxury of that investigation.

The Bill in its entirety introduces swathes of red tape for trade unions and this definition is a key factor in that red tape. Far from simplifying or modernising industrial relations, the Bill will frustrate and complicate them. The clause will create a mess. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether those who will have to clean up after it will be defined as ancillary services and subject to a double threshold too.