Clause 6 - Information to Certification Officer about industrial action etc

Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 20 October 2015.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I am getting more and more tied up in the Government’s blue tape. Much like clauses 4 and 5, this clause is designed to deter and disrupt trade unions by burdening them with additional requirements.

I am sure that we will have at a later stage an extensive discussion of the role of the certification officer, given the clauses and provisions through which the Government are attempting to expand it. This clause also touches on that issue because it will require trade unions to report to the certification officer on whether industrial action has taken place in the last 12 months, the nature of the disputes, what action was taken and  the turnout and ballot results. If trade unions fail to comply, they may face severe financial penalties. Not only does this measure create significant new administrative burdens for trade unions, which do not necessarily gather those data centrally, but many are rightly asking why this new duty is necessary and what purpose it will serve.

As I hope members of the Committee know, though I am sure they will be enlightened at later stages, the certification officer is an independent agency with responsibility for regulating trade unions and employers’ associations. I am concerned, as are others, including some who spoke to the Committee during the oral evidence stage, that the role of the independent certification officer risks being politicised in a wide range of ways through the Bill. This is just one of them. I would like some assurances from the Minister, even at this stage, that the Government are aware of those concerns. Will the Government seek to ensure the integrity and separation of the certification officer? We have already heard how the role will be blurred between investigator, manager of data, executioner of orders and many other things, blurring all the principles of natural justice. It would be good to hear some assurances from the Minister.

This comes down to whether the Government think it is appropriate that an agency of the state, albeit a currently independent one, should gather detailed information about private disputes between employers and unions. Although trade unions have been vocal in their opposition thus far, I believe that many businesses and employers, if they were aware of the full implications of this clause, would object to detailed information about their workplace operations being published online and a permanent record of disputes being retained. We all know about the media organisations that harvest as much information as they can from centrally published databases and so on. I suspect that quite a lot of mischief could be caused by attempting to portray certain employers in ways that I think they would feel uncomfortable with.

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

That is an important point. Many employers will reflect that this would not do them a great deal of good in the public gaze. Strikes are often—almost without exception—symptoms of poor industrial relations within the workplace. Many employers, where those industrial relations have broken down to such an extent, may be rather concerned to find that the Government are proposing that detailed information about their workplace operations will be open to public scrutiny. That may well not be good for the very people that the Government are trying to protect here: businesses.

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

I thank my hon. Friend for that very important point. While we heard oral evidence from the CBI and the BCC on a range of issues, they did not seem to be as strident and as certain in their views as on other aspects of the Bill, despite this potentially having a significant impact on businesses and employers. It would appear, I have to say, that their formal consultation with their members was perhaps more limited than one would expect for organisations that seek to represent industry and businesses up and down the country. I find that quite surprising, given the impact that this could have on disclosing information.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

Perhaps I can help the Committee because, before I came to this House, I conducted industrial relations on behalf of the business of which I was an owner with a recognised trade union. I would certainly not have wanted detailed information about the disputes, very few of which took place over a 26-year period, to be publicly available online for anyone else to see. This raises not only issues of reputation and industrial relations between businesses but also issues of commercial sensitivity that would adversely affect businesses. I am sure that is not what the Government want.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 4:15, 20 October 2015

I completely agree. Many businesses and employers would have concerns if that were a consequence, unintended as it may be, of the legislation. There are some fundamental issues at stake in terms of the confidentiality of these types of dispute and the potential that this will prevent negotiations and concerns being dealt with in the most sensible, consensual and private way to come to a resolution.

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

We can imagine a situation where industrial relations have broken down to such an extent that, in order to embarrass an employer, the wording on the ballot paper and the information alongside it, given the detailed nature of many industrial disputes, could be written in such a way as to create commercial problems for a company. Would my hon. Friend agree? The role of the certification officer in publishing this information could also have a detrimental impact if confidential commercial information were directly related to an industrial dispute.

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

Indeed, and it would be a strange situation were we to find a Minister in a future Committee sitting able to find many examples of ballot papers to read from, casting all sorts of aspersion on the conduct of businesses in industry and the public sector up and down the country.

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

A potential example that we would certainly not want documented or in the public view is a trade union dispute between GCHQ and its employees. Would the Government really want that information published?

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

I can think of all sorts of other examples. Again, the implications of this do not seem to have been properly thought through. Will the Minister briefly comment on who has requested this? Who has said they want this? Have employers, businesses and public servants up and down the country been banging on the Minister’s door saying, “We want this information out there in the public domain,” as the Bill would require?

This would not only add to the regulation of trade unions and the implications for employers; new powers for the certification officer would inevitably be followed by additional costs. The wide extension of the certification officer’s power will have significant fiscal implications. What assessment has the Minister made of the likely cost implications of the certification officer having to gather this additional information? Will it come from existing budgets, will new moneys be provided or will it be cost-neutral?

In any other sector, I am sure the Government would attack such burdensome regulations as needless officialdom that should be done away with in a bonfire of bureaucracy. Does the Minister agree that legislation affecting trade unions should be held to the same standards?

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 the hon. Gentleman goes again with his blood-curdling language. I have been described as introducing “an executioner” of trade unions. The simple truth, as ever, is a lot duller: we are just trying to beef up the certification officer’s role so that it can be a modern regulator of trade unions.

The certification officer will have no greater and no more expansive powers than other regulators—indeed, rather less in some examples. We also want more transparency for everyone about industrial action undertaken by unions. Effective regulation and transparency help to improve confidence in how institutions are run, which can only be a good thing. It is slightly surprising to hear the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues argue against transparency, as if somehow the public interest is better protected by keeping things secret. That is a surprising position for the Opposition to take.

We will discuss the detail of the certification officer’s role later, and I do not want to anticipate that. This debate is about the information that trade unions are required to provide to the certification officer about industrial action. That is an important requirement, because the timely provision of good quality information is a key component of ensuring effective regulation. It gives more confidence to those affected by industrial disputes, which is of course why trade unions are already required to provide certain information every year to the certification officer. That is set out in section 32 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and annual returns submitted to the certification officer are already available for public inspection. I do not remember any proposal coming forward from the previous Labour Government to alter the fact of those annual returns or of that availability. If industrial action is taken during the period of the return as a result of a successful ballot called by a union, the clause requires that union to include certain information about the action in its annual return to the certification officer.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

Can the Minister tell the Committee who exactly has asked for the provision? We are not aware of anyone, neither employer nor union, who has asked for it.

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 have news for the hon. Lady: the Government sometimes act because they have received a mandate—and a majority—at a general election on a clear proposal in their manifesto. That clear proposal was to reform the role of the certification officer. The Government have also, during the term of the coalition Government, had a longstanding commitment to transparency in the public interest and we are not ashamed to continue that in the clause.

The union will need to provide details about the nature of the dispute, the nature of the industrial action and when the action was taken, as specified by clause 4. One of the ways in which we seek to achieve a more effective role for the certification officer is by ensuring that he has full information about any industrial action proposed and taken by a union. We want to achieve that through increased transparency in the annual return to  the officer. The clause also requires a union to provide the certification officer with details of the outcome of any ballot for industrial action, if the union has called a ballot during the period of the annual return. That requirement applies whether the ballot was successful or not.

Accurate information presented in a transparent manner about industrial action proposed and taken by a union helps to demonstrate to union members, and to the wider public, that unions are properly regulated and fully accountable for their actions. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 8.

Division number 14 Decision Time — Clause 6 - Information to Certification Officer about industrial action etc

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.