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Clause 7 - Two weeks’ notice to be given to employers of industrial action

Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 20th 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)

If the administrative burdens—all the blue tape—were not already sufficient to halt industrial action, make the rights of trade unions illusory and disrupt the activities of their members, and even though the ballot thresholds are rarely used elsewhere in our democracy, the Minister has yet another legislative weapon in his armoury to render the campaigns in the run-up to industrial action, which are often used to seek agreed settlement and avert strike action, impotent. Clause 7 seeks to extend the notice period that unions must provide to employers before industrial action can take place from seven days to two weeks. That is excessive and unnecessary, because trade unions are already required to provide at least one week’s notice of a ballot, allow at least two weeks for the ballot and then announce the result before giving two weeks’ notice of action. In practice, at least five weeks will pass between the start of a balloting process and any industrial action.

It is important to understand that, because the actual practice, rather than the academic approach that the Department appears to be taking to trade union activities, is what matters. Members of the Government gave all these examples in their oral evidence of people being able to prepare for disruption and everything else. Obviously those of us on this side of the Committee would want  people to have the maximum amount of information and awareness with which to do that, but five weeks is a long time. Of course, in most industrial disputes such things would have been under discussion for some time. There would be an awareness of tensions and potential problems. There may have been consultative ballots in the past and evidence that there may be disruption. Industrial action is always a last resort.

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

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Clause 4 has been agreed by this Committee, and is therefore likely to go forward to Report. The important point is that, because of clause 4, employers will be informed of the proposed start date of the industrial action when the people involved in the ballot receive a copy of the voting paper. The notice is already in the Bill, so this is yet another unnecessary measure.

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

I absolutely agree. In fact, I was just about to make that very point. Because of clause 4, employers will know when industrial action, if it is agreed upon, would start before the ballot is run. The information is there. There is already the five-week period, which is lengthy, and most people would consider it reasonable. Again, I believe that this measure belies the Government’s real intent. In my view and the view of the Opposition, the extended notice period will serve no legitimate purpose other than giving the employer additional time to organise the agency workers that the Government want to allow them to undermine the strike or industrial action, and to prepare for the legal challenges and the lawyers’ charter that the Bill provides.

Photo of Seema Kennedy Seema Kennedy Conservative, South Ribble

The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have made great play of the fact that Government Members have very little experience of trade union activity. Personally, I accept that; I do have not very much. But I do have experience—as does my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk—of running a small business. There is cost, inconvenience and, most importantly, damage to the employee’s goodwill when they go to law. The idea that we are all rushing off to lawyers is a misunderstanding, certainly of what I would have done as an employee and of what the majority of British businesses do.

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

I regularly speak to many small businesses up and down my constituency. I have a very positive relationship with them, and I have a good degree of understanding of the challenges they face. As I have repeatedly said in this Committee, we want to avoid situations in which industrial action takes place. That is not under dispute in this debate or in our discussion about the whole Bill, but we believe the Government are going too far on the restrictions on reasonable rights.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

Is it not the case that the litigation to which the hon. Member for South Ribble referred is actually brought by employers, not by employees or trade unions? It is employers who bring injunctions against industrial action.

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

My hon. Friend speaks with a great degree of legal experience and expertise from her previous career. That is indeed the case, and it is a very  important point to make. I believe this is just a case of providing opportunities to undermine, rather than seeking resolution and negotiation in a consensual manner. It again provides the potential for protracted disputes, which means that amicable settlements will be more difficult to achieve. If the Government were serious about promoting positive industrial relations, dialogue, agreement, conciliation and arbitration, they would not simply be extending time, which is already extensive, on the basis that people will be shocked if there were a tube strike tomorrow. People know well in advance if such things are happening, and it is deeply patronising to suggest otherwise.

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)

We recognise the important part that negotiations play in reaching resolution of disputes between unions and employers. Even where such negotiations have been ongoing for some time, reaching the point at which a union serves notice of an intention to take industrial action signals to an employer that the matter has now escalated to a critical level. With a valid ballot mandate having been secured—which in itself is a prior signal that the matter is escalating—serving notice is the last stage in the process before a union can take industrial action. It is therefore also the employer’s last opportunity before the industrial action takes place to reach a negotiated solution. This is when continuing dialogue between the parties becomes even more important.

We recognise that, which is why the clause allows a longer period of time during which the trade union and the employer can discuss and strive to reach an agreement on how best to resolve the dispute without recourse to industrial action. That is why in clause 8 we are also removing the need to take some industrial action within four weeks of a ballot. A negotiated settlement is best for the employer, the public, the union and its members, and we are keen to promote every opportunity for such discussion to take place.

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee 4:30 pm, 20th October 2015

Does the Minister accept that intransigence and the refusal to negotiate in a proper manner by employers is also a form of industrial action?

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 am realistic; I understand that there are times when unions feel they have no option but to take industrial action. As I have said, nothing we are doing is stopping that, but let us not lose sight of the scale of disruption that strikes can cause, not only for employers, but for members of the public. It is only right that those whose lives are affected are confident that the legislation provides every opportunity to avoid such disruption, if at all possible. Providing a longer period of time for the notice of the intention to take action is an important part of that process.

Some unions must agree with that, because there are instances where they have chosen to give two weeks’ notice voluntarily, such as in October 2014, when nursing staff provided more than three weeks’ notice of a half-day strike. It is only fair that employers and members of the public who rely on services have the certainty of having a decent amount of time to make contingency arrangements and that both parties to a dispute have more time to continue negotiations. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

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

I am still debating in my head whether the clause is insidious or whether, again, it relates to the Government’s view on Jedi-like powers. This morning we discussed trade union officials having Jedi powers to convince trade union members who did not participate in the ballot to participate in the action. Does it take 14 days for those Jedi-like powers to dissipate? I do not know, but I have concerns about the clause that relate to the ever-increasing number of statutory redundancy notices being issued. The limit has been changed to 45 days, which makes it difficult for the trade union to organise and complete its ballot process within the timeframe that the Government are setting out, and that will lead to more balloting. When a trade union gets notices from an employer that there is to be redundancy, the first thing the union will have to do is trigger the mechanisms for balloting before it has even had a discussion with the employer.

The proposal also treats the public with contempt. There seems to be a suggestion that the public are somehow not aware that a trade union has served notice of industrial action to an employer, but the trade union will notify the media of that to get the discussion going with its members. Indeed, some parts of the media that are not friendly towards trade unions and are perhaps more friendly towards the Government will use that publicity too.

The population out there is not made up of hermits. I think the real purpose of changing the notice period from seven days to 14 days is to ensure that momentum is lost in support of an industrial action. In reality, the notice period starts when the employer is notified that the trade union intends to ballot for industrial action. Under existing law, employers are more than adequately able to prepare with the seven-day notices, so I am opposed to the clause.

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

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 8.

Division number 15 Decision Time — Clause 7 - Two weeks’ notice to be given to employers of industrial action

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.