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

Part of Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 20th October 2015.

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Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central 3:00 pm, 20th October 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir Alan. I want to speak in support of the amendments in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends concerning the differences between “essential” and “important” public services. I totally agree with the comments from my hon. Friend, who has outlined the problems very clearly.

As written, these clauses unworkable in practice. Everything I have said so far in this Committee has been about the practicalities of the Bill and that is really where I want to start today, but before doing that, I want to talk about the definition of essential public services. It is a well established, well trodden path: everybody understands what it is. The Conservative manifesto and Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech both talked about essential public services. During our consideration of the previous group of amendments, the Minister said, “Of course, we respect the mandate of the commitments made in manifestos.” If that is what he believes, this flies in the face of it and is an absolute contradiction, so I would like to hear his comments on that matter.

The TUC is a representative body of 52 trade unions, most of which are not affiliated to a political party, representing almost 6 million people—the TUC expresses the views of a substantial body of people. On pages 2 and 3 of its written evidence, the TUC mentions that the Employment Lawyers Association

“has warned the government against introducing thresholds to services not covered by the ILO definition of ‘essential services’.”

The ELA clearly recognises that there will be problems with the definition. Page 3 of the evidence states:

“The TUC is concerned that the Bill does not define ‘important public services’. Instead the government plans to specify which workers will be covered by 40 per cent threshold in regulations. MPs will therefore have limited opportunity to scrutinise and amend new legislation which restricts the democratic rights of millions of UK workers.”

In oral evidence, Dave Prentis, the general secretary of the largest public sector union, Unison, talked about life and limb cover; but in their oral evidence some of the people who support the Bill did not seem to understand either what life and limb cover is or that it even exists. Dave Prentis’s evidence is highly pertinent. Once again, I feel that the Government are heading blindly into legal action. Recklessly changing the definition will cause major problems and ultimately could restrict, by the back door, the right of workers in the private sector to take what I regard as legitimate strike or industrial action.

The public sector has changed out of all recognition over the past 20 years. It now has substantial organisations, whether in local government, the national health service or other areas. There is a melange of different constructs, whether they are outsourced by contracts, let by bidding, that contain clauses with which some of this legislation might clash, or whether they are in arm’s length management organisations. Will people in cleaning services, for example, be deemed as essential or important, or will they be deemed as not important? Different cleaning services in a hospital might be treated differently. Someone who cleans a reception area might be treated differently from someone who cleans operating theatres. All of those things will come into the mix at every stage of every different industrial dispute. The cost implications have not been thought through.

It would be much safer, and would practically avoid the risk of litigation, if we stuck to the term “essential public services.” The Conservative Government have a mandate for that from their manifesto commitment and from Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech. The term is well defined, unlike the alternative in the Bill, which will be incredibly difficult for MPs to scrutinise and will restrict the right of many people to take industrial action. Almost inevitably, the result will be litigation, which will cost taxpayers money. Every time the Government go to court when they have not thought proposals through—we saw many instances in the previous Parliament, particularly in the energy sector, where the Government lost cases—the cost of that litigation returns to the taxpayers, who fund Government court cases. I urge the Government to consider these proposals carefully. Although we disagree with the Bill’s substance, these amendments would at least make the clause workable. Also, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on his party’s manifesto.