‘(c) Save that no such regulation shall have the effect of altering, in respect of any of the matters to which the reserve powers may be directed, any provision of a contract of employment or a collective agreement or of limiting an employer’s discretion as to the contents of contracts of employment or collective agreements to which the employer is a party”.
It is good to be back under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, for what I hope is the last day of our line-by-line consideration of the Bill. I am sure, given the number of inconsistencies and problems that have been exposed during the course of our debates, that we are all looking forward to coming back to the Bill on Report to raise those concerns again.
Clause 13 proposes further regulation of facility time by the extension of a very wide-ranging reserve power of Ministers of the Crown. I do not wish to detain the Committee unnecessarily by repeating the fundamental arguments for why facility time is so important; I simply draw the Committee’s attention to my previous remarks. I believe there is a serious problem with the nature of the power proposed in clause 13 and how it cuts across the devolution settlement, as was touched on in the point of order from the hon. Member for Glasgow South West.
Under current legislation, trade union workplace representatives have a right to reasonable paid time off to perform certain duties. As we have previously discussed, that has huge benefits for employees and employers alike. The clause could allow the Government to cap the percentage of the employer’s pay bill that is invested in facility time. It will give the Government the power to impose an arbitrary limit on the amount of time that public sector union officials can spend on facility work during working hours. That might be time spent on negotiating improved pay and conditions; training, as outlined in section 168 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992; promoting learning opportunities as union learning reps under section 168A of the 1992 Act, which the Minister said he was very supportive of; accompanying individuals in grievance and disciplinary hearings, under section 10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, which is a very important function that I have been involved in; or on health and safety duties and training, under the regulations made under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.
The potential consequences of this are deeply concerning. The Government have not set out exactly which of those duties they seek to cap or which particular sectors the clause will apply to. They are leaving themselves a very wide-ranging power for intervening. They say, as they have so often told us, “Trust us, we’re the Ministers,” but that is simply not good enough when it comes to such important matters.
The clause is particularly troubling to Opposition Members because it establishes a clear democratic deficit in three main areas. First, the provisions will mean that Government Ministers can use as yet unseen secondary legislation to push through restrictions or repeal trade union rights contained in primary legislation. While hon. Members on both sides of the Committee recognise the important role that secondary legislation plays, many would also accept that it gives Parliament less opportunity to debate and amend such regulations than would otherwise be the case.
Secondly, the provisions could prevent public sector employers, including in Scotland and Wales who have responsibility for a number of wholly devolved areas of public service provision and who have their own democratic mandate, from deciding how to manage employment relations in their workplace and how to engage with their staff.
Thirdly, the provisions mean that the Government can be selective as to which public and local authorities may be forced to impose a cap, introducing an element of significant discrimination on quite wide-ranging powers to behave in a very partisan and nakedly political way over these matters.
There are significant questions about the legality of such a change. We heard during the oral evidence stage from Professor Ewing, the Welsh and Scottish Governments and others, about the potential contraventions that the Bill provides. There is a risk that the proposal for a cap could conflict with EU law which protects the rights of health and safety representatives to paid time for their duties and training; the rights of trade union representatives to paid time off and office facilities during consultations on collective redundancies and outsourcing under their TUPE rights; and even under general information and consultation arrangements covered by the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations.
The measures also represent a significant attack on rights that are protected by the European convention on human rights and ILO conventions. We have many questions about the clause. I hope that the Minister can explain what legal advice he has taken on the question of whether the proposal for a cap conflicts with EU law, with TUPE rights and with the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004. I would like him to be very specific on those three points.
We had a partial debate about the clause in our discussion of clause 12, and I was intrigued by some of the Minister’s comments. He promised that he would write to the Committee and he has done so. He reiterated the point he made in line-by-line consideration and said:
“I promised to write to the Committee before we debate Clause 13 to indicate who will exercise the powers in Clause 12 to require the publication of information about facility time and who may exercise the reserve powers in Clause 13 having regard to that information…It is right that Ministers have the flexibility to propose and, as a last resort, set caps on paid facility time…This will allow the relevant Minister to make regulations tailored to that. So, for example, the Secretary of State for Health will make regulations imposing publication requirements on NHS and other health employers and may exercise the reserve powers in relation to them if he considers appropriate to do so taking account of the information relating to facility time that they are required to publish.”
I am extremely concerned that this cuts across the devolution settlement. It cuts across the powers of Welsh and Scottish Ministers to make arrangements in their own sectors. The Welsh First Minister, on hearing the Minister’s comments in our sitting on Thursday and learning of the contents of the letter, has made it clear publicly that he believes it would require the consent of the Welsh Government.
Will the Minister to clarify the position because it seems to be matter of considerable debate? There are clearly conflicting legal opinions—I know which side I am on—and this is a serious matter, given the wider constitutional debates that we are having at the moment. It appears that the Secretary of State for Health or the Secretary of State for Education would use the powers in the clause to intervene in the day-to-day running of the Scottish or Welsh health services.
My reading of the letter indicates that there would also be interference in local government. There will be an impact, given the devolved Administrations’ funding arrangements and agreements with local government.
Indeed, and the Minister skirted round this issue when we discussed it briefly. Will this power on facility time and, more broadly, the powers in the Bill apply retrospectively and therefore affect existing employment contracts up and down the land, whether in local government or devolved public authorities or in other agreements? The measure could lead to the extensive unwinding of contracts that have been entered into in good faith by individuals, employers and public sector authorities.
Furthermore, when we look at public sector contracts going forward, should Welsh and Scottish Government Ministers and local authority cabinet members engaged in discussions with their employers about the nature of the contracts and the balance of responsibilities and rights expect those contracts to be undermined at any time at the whim of a Minister of the Crown, who could strike out clauses or imply that they are not valid because of some arbitrary decision taken about facility time? I fear that this poses an extraordinarily dangerous precedent, where Ministers will be able to act in a partisan and political way to attack, for example, a local authority or a devolved Government of different political persuasion, to intervene in their powers and democratic mandate to run public services in the way they see fit.
Amendment 101 is intended specifically to prevent a breach of article 11 of the European convention, which precludes a state from negating the provisions of a collective agreement. It would prevent the Government from using regulations and powers under the clause to rewrite existing collective agreements and contracts, which is that retrospective point I made. Those contracts of employment had been voluntarily agreed by public sector employers, employees and unions, and provided union reps with time off to represent their members.
The provision would also mean that public sector employers could agree new collective agreements and contracts of employment providing union reps with time off for union duties, effectively setting aside any arbitrary cap imposed by the Government. I draw the Minister’s attention to the case of Demir and Baykara v. Turkey in 2008 in which the ECHR affirmed the fundamental right of workers to engage in collective bargaining and take collective action to achieve that end.
The power in the clause falls foul not only of legal precedents but of decisions, conventions and standards that we are party to. It would fundamentally cut across the country’s constitutional arrangements and the devolution settlements. It is extraordinarily unwise for the Government to do that, given precedents. I hope the Minister can give a fuller explanation, given the nature of those concerns.
I wish to confine my observations to the comments made by the Minister on Thursday, which he has followed up in writing. First, it appeals to my dry sense of humour that, having rejected amendments on publishing percentages, the Minister writes to us with percentages, in the letter on spending. I am encouraged by that and I hope the Minister will go back and consider publishing percentages on facility time.
The Committee owes a debt of gratitude to the shadow Minister for skilfully wheedling out of the Minister the prospect of the Secretary of State for Health dictating to devolved Administrations on the level of facility time. Presumably the same applies to local government. I am willing to wager that the Minister has not thought through the implications for local governments that have agreements with devolved Administrations on funding and powers through agreements or concordats. It leaves the public with the impression of a Government who conduct first-rate bullying, only days after they declared some Members second class, by a third-rate Administration whose casual approach to legislation does not even provide them with the foresight to realise the constitutional crisis they are sprinting towards.
In no other case do the UK Government have such powers to interfere or dictate to a devolved Administration how to conduct their affairs. The fact that the Government do not consider a legislative consent motion to be appropriate in these circumstances is either remarkable ignorance, gross incompetence or simply the act of a bully. This is dangerous terrain for the Government. I hope the Minister declares what discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations surrounding the reserve powers in the clause, and how they will be enacted.
These proposals are being made in the context of the Scotland and Wales Bills, which have still to conclude their parliamentary journey. It seems extraordinary that the Government can reveal their intentions at the last stages of this process. As the shadow Minister said on Thursday, creating reserve powers signals the intent to use them. The Minister must tell us what, if any, discussions he has had in that regard.
I signal our support for amendment 101. There are clear contractual obligations, and there will be clear costs to public sector employers, which will have to issue new statements of particulars or new contracts to public sector employees.
The proportion of spending on facility time is extremely low, as the Minister confirmed in his letter. Will the Government consider democratic mandates? The Conservative share of the vote at the general election in Scotland was the lowest since universal suffrage. The Conservatives have no mandate in that regard. I was considering whether to press amendment 85 to a Division but, because of the correspondence that we have received, I now feel obliged to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. In the context of clauses 12 and 13, I have been remiss in not declaring a non-financial interest in as much as I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association, which is the umbrella body for local authorities in England and Wales.
Clause 13 includes a Henry VIII power whereby Ministers will be able to use secondary legislation to push through restrictions on or to repeal the right to paid time off for trade union duties in the public sector contained in primary legislation, and Parliament will have very limited opportunity to debate or amend such regulations. It is worrying that Ministers are taking such powers unto themselves and, in essence, sidelining Parliament from effective overview and scrutiny of their actions.
The clause demonstrates the Government’s total lack of understanding of the practice of good industrial relations. First, the clause is, in effect, a blank cheque for the Government: if passed, it would give Ministers the power to limit facilities for trade union officials. It contains no explanation of how or why that power would be exercised, and it certainly provides no logic or justification.
Secondly, the provision applies only to the public sector, just like the provision to record time off for facility time, and we need to ask ourselves why that is. First and foremost, like bad employers, this Government feel it is appropriate to threaten and intimidate their own workforce. Of course, the other people who will be affected by the measure are not directly the Government’s workforce but people who work for other public bodies such as local authorities, local government and the emergency services—public servants. The main reason why the provision does not apply to the private sector is because private sector employers do not really want it.
Good employers know and understand the value of working together with their workers and with trade unions. Good employers know and understand that their greatest assets are the good people who work for them. Good employers invest in their workers—they pay them well, train them and reward them; they do all they can to encourage loyalty and dedication. They try to retain their workforce because it costs a lot of money to train staff in a range of different skills and professions. That is why the best employers work in partnership with their workers, and it is why they encourage independent trade unions.
Trade union officials are an integral part of the best companies, working tirelessly to improve relations, productivity and profits. Trade unions know and understand that workers prosper only in growing, profitable firms.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the review of facilities and facility time conducted by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in 2007? The report concluded that the work of union representatives actually reduces the number of cases proceeding to an employment tribunal and the number of working days lost due to workplace injury and workplace-related illness, and that such reductions result in significant financial savings.
Yes, I was aware of that, but I thank the hon. Lady for bringing it to the Committee’s attention, because it certainly helps to make the point that I am pursuing.
Clearly, there is a vision of trade unions that this Government do not understand, and that vision is shared by many private sector employers. Unfortunately, this Government see trade unions as the enemy within. They still hark back to the miners’ strike of 1984-85 and to the 1970s, when, we all accept, industrial relations in this country could have been a lot better. However, we are not in the 1970s; it is 2015, and the landscape of industrial relations is very different.
I have been a trade unionist all my adult life. On my second day of employment with British Gas I asked the personnel department how I could see a union official to sign up for my union membership, and I joined the National and Local Government Officers’ Association—NALGO—which is now part of Unison. I think that NALGO was an acronym for “Not A Lot Going On”—[Laughter.] I have been a trade unionist all my adult life, and I had the honour of working with many very decent and honourable union officers, both full-time officials and lay officials who were elected by their peers in the workplace.
I have also been an employer; I was deputy leader of Gateshead Council. Back in the days before we had the severe and harsh cuts that we currently have to go through, we had something like 11,000 employees in Gateshead. They covered a whole spectrum of different professions, providing public services for the people of the borough and the constituency that I represent. We prided ourselves on having good industrial relations and having good dialogue with our workforce on a regular basis. There were of course times when there were problems, but we managed to talk through the vast majority of those problems through good, robust and—on occasion—friendly industrial relations.
I have been above that as well; I have also chaired a national negotiating committee of the LGA called the Soulbury committee. We looked after the interests of advisers for schools, educational psychologists and other professionals of that nature. I therefore have an understanding of the strategic role that employers play in good industrial relations.
The Government need to understand why business is not that keen on these provisions. For instance, they should read Personnel Today, the journal for human resources professionals and practitioners. An article in that journal states that:
“You can have the most sophisticated industrial relations structures, follow all the rules and negotiate ad infinitum, but you will get nowhere if your relationships with staff and their union reps aren’t based on trust”.
“This was abundantly clear during the recent civil service industrial action and the narrowly averted strike at British Airways (BA). We see this time and again. An organisation might call us in because it can’t get an agreement signed off, or the process has become too uncomfortable for both sides. What we frequently find when we get there is a climate of mistrust, entrenched ideas, and even outright hostility between union and management, employer and worker.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Look at Co-operative Financial Services, where we recently facilitated a management/union agreement over outsourcing—one of the most sensitive industrial relations issues over the past five years. Similarly at Gillette where, faced with redundancies, the business consulted with employees at the earliest opportunity and asked the staff representatives for alternative proposals, how to approach the situation and what the final redundancy package should contain. Larger, more complex organisations can learn from these successes”.
The UK Government need to learn lessons from the real world. Instead of fighting the ideological battles of the last century, they need to start equipping this country with legislation that fosters and supports good practice, and supports workers and their representatives. The legislation needs to recognise not only that it is right and fair to support the weakest and the most vulnerable but that, ultimately, as the best employers have repeatedly demonstrated, it is good for business too.
It is a pleasure to be starting what I hope will be the final day under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. Sometimes during this debate it strikes me that the two sides of the Committee are discussing completely different pieces of legislation. Both Opposition parties portray the Bill as one of the most egregious attacks on fundamental human rights since King John, whereas I would describe it as, to borrow a phrase from the previous speaker, a NALGO Bill, in that there is not a lot going on.
What the Government are proposing here is nothing more than a set of provisions that seek to change behaviour within the public sector. After all, the public sector is funded by taxpayers: they go out to work to earn money and they pay taxes, so they have a right to see that money spent responsibly. We hope that, in the light of public scrutiny of the information relating to facility time that public sector employers will be required to publish under clause 12, public sector employers will voluntarily renegotiate their existing facility time arrangements with trade unions and bring their spending on taxpayer-funded facility time under control.
We could, of course, have legislated now for a cap, so the idea that the clause, to cite another famous monarch, is a Henry VIII measure, an egregious attack, is false. We have heard a lot about the constitution in recent hours. We could have legislated for a cap now and no doubt the Opposition would have attacked that. We have taken the more modest route of suggesting reserve powers, which—the clue is in the name—will be kept in reserve and used only as the last resort. Only if transparency shows unacceptable inefficiencies in relevant employer spending on facility time and poor value for money for taxpayers from existing facility time arrangements with trade unions will Ministers set a cap on the time and money spent on facility time.
Amendment 101 would prevent the reserve powers being exercised so as to effect changes to a contract of employment or collective agreement, or limit the relevant employer’s discretion as to the contents of the contract or agreement concerned. The amendment would, in effect, neuter any consequential provision that regulations could make amending or otherwise modifying contracts of employment or collective agreements. As I have said, it is by no means certain that the reserve powers will ever be exercised and, should they be exercised, it is also by no means certain that this would interfere with, or override, existing contractual rights and rights under collective agreements. Most union representatives do not have contractual rights to facility time over and above their statutory rights, which we are not seeking to change.
We keep going around this merry-go-round. The Government receive a great deal of legal advice from their own officers and sometimes they seek other advice. We do not publish that advice; we are satisfied with the compatibility of all our proposals with all the laws and treaties to which we are signed up. Any cap on facility time will only apply prospectively. It is, on the other hand, possible in theory—though, as I have said, unlikely in practice—that a cap may apply to ongoing, legally-binding relationships; either legally enforceable terms in a collective agreement, or in the contractual rights of individual employees. This is what is flagged in the European convention on human rights memorandum to the Bill. The Government acknowledge, however, that even the potential impacts upon pre-existing contractual arrangements should be fully debated. That is why we considered the affirmative procedure to be necessary to provide the correct level of parliamentary scrutiny.
Before asking hon. Members to withdraw their amendment I want to respond to a question, which is not specific to this amendment, about the devolution settlement. The devolution settlement does not define which individual Ministers in the Government can do things. It defines which areas of policy are devolved and which are not. We have established, and there is general consent—although it might well be wished otherwise—that employment law is not a devolved policy but a reserved policy, and therefore Ministers in the UK Government are entitled to exercise those reserved powers in relation to their responsibilities. That does not imply that, say, the Secretary of State for Health, would be breaching the devolution of health to the Scottish and Welsh Governments by exercising the reserve powers under employment law in the way that we have outlined.
First, can the Minister confirm that the Scotland Bill has still to reach the end of its parliamentary journey and so the issue of devolving employment law has still to be settled? The Secretary of State for Scotland is considering that matter, as I moved the devolving of employment law in Committee.
Secondly, can he confirm which Government Ministers will have the reserve power to dictate facility time for local government and health in Scotland?
It is very clear. First, we are following the Smith commission recommendations. It may be the case that a particular Bill has not yet received Royal Assent and anything is possible, as we are in the process of discovering in our vibrant parliamentary democracy. No doubt, if there is an unexpected result, future legislation will be adjusted to reflect it. The Government’s intention to follow the Smith commission recommendations that employment law remains a reserved policy is very clear. It would be odd if we brought forward a Bill that conflicted with another Bill that we were trying to take through Parliament at the same time by presuming that that Bill was going to fail. We are presuming that the Bill will succeed, because we are following the Smith commission.
I have been clear that Ministers of the Crown can exercise the reserve powers that are reserved to the United Kingdom Government. There is no detailing that this Minister can do this and that Minister can do that. We are all Ministers of the Crown and the reserve powers of the UK Government are clearly set out in the Bill.
What the Minister is admitting is quite extraordinary. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West mentioned the Scotland Bill. There is also a debate about a draft Wales Bill, which many Members of this House and the Welsh Government consider rolls back the devolution settlement. This seems to be a further rolling back. I draw the Minister’s attention to the comment from the Minister for Public Services who, on hearing the Minister’s claims on Thursday, said:
“This confirms our assertion that the UK Government cannot impose these regressive changes on Wales and any change will require our consent.”
Is the Minister proposing to take the Welsh Government to the Supreme Court if they refuse to implement the Bill?
He would say that, wouldn’t he? He is a member of the hon. Gentleman’s party and he disagrees with the Bill. I entirely respect that, but the fact remains that employment law—to which all these provisions relate—is a reserve matter in the Smith commission proposals that all parties and certainly his party signed up to. We are currently taking Bills through Parliament which will implement the Smith commission proposals in full, therefore all our proposals, including proposals on facility time are entirely consistent with the devolution settlement. On that basis, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.
I did not expect the Minister to do anything other than stick to his guns, but I find it extraordinary. There are very serious questions, not only about how the measure cuts across existing conventions and legal treaties and provisions that we are party to. I hope the Government’s legal advice is very good because I suspect there may be a number of significant challenges to the Bill.
I remain astonished at the admission that the executive powers that have been devolved since 1999 to the Welsh and Scottish Governments are being exposed as limited by the Bill. On top of the debates on the Scotland Bill and the draft Wales Bill, that is extremely revealing. Has the Minister had consultations with the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales about this?
It is certainly the view of the Welsh and Scottish Governments that they may well require a legislative consent motion to be passed in order for the legislation to go forward. The level of consultation at a whole series of stages of the Bill, before and during the process, has been very weak. I think that is reflected in the potential undermining of the clause in many respects by existing provisions to which we are party.
I want to draw the Committee’s attention to a couple of other things that the Minister said. He talked as if this was a “nothing to see here” clause, but it is drafted in an extremely wide-ranging way, stating:
“If a Minister of the Crown considers it appropriate to do so, having regard to information”.
It does not even say that a Minister might exercise the powers if a particular percentage of time is hit. It is basically a matter of saying to a Minister, “Have a look at this information. It doesn’t really matter what it says, but if you fancy intervening in local government or devolved Government across the UK, you can do it if you consider ‘it appropriate’.”
Although this Minister might be clear that the powers should be only reserve powers, I can think of many others who would be happy to use them in an extraordinarily partisan way to attack individual local authorities or devolved Governments that they do not like due to the nature of their political arrangements. They might consider it “appropriate” to use those powers without having any regard to the information provided one way or the other. That is extraordinarily serious, especially given that we are dealing with vital time used for things such as health and safety, helping to find solutions and settlements to disputes and, indeed, helping the public sector to achieve changes in a time of constrained finances and beyond.
I was pleased that the Minister made clear his view that the provisions should apply prospectively rather than retrospectively—I had a little hope for a moment—but he then admitted that they could apply to ongoing legally binding regulations, which is why they are flagged in the ECHR memorandums. I worry that this will cost the Government an awful lot of money—taxpayers’ money—due to lengthy legal proceedings with individuals, local authorities or devolved Governments whose ongoing contractual arrangements are undermined and unwound by the Bill. As I said, I hope that the Minister has deep pockets, because the Government will face significant challenges over the measures and their implementation, which is why I will press the amendment to a Division.
Amendment proposed: 85, in clause 13, page 10, line 44, at end insert—
‘(14) For the avoidance of doubt, the powers in this section shall only apply with the consent of the Scottish Government, Welsh Government, Northern Ireland Executive, the Mayor of London and Local Authorities in England in their areas of responsibility.”—(Chris Stephens.)