Clause 16 - Further powers of Certification Officer where enforcement order made

Trade Union Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 27th October 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

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

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

I want to ask the Minister a few questions. The clause inserts new section 32ZC into the 1992 Act and gives effect to schedule 3, which we will come to shortly. The certification officer will have a new power to impose financial penalties on unions when an enforcement order has been made, and the Government will have the power to set the level of penalties in regulations. Paragraph 6 of schedule 3 states that penalties will range from £200 to £20,000. The clause also extends the ability of individual members of a union to enforce the certification officer’s orders even if that order was no concern of theirs.

Will the Minister explain a little more about the penalties—how they will be applied, the different gradings and so on? Do the Government plan to increase the limit at any point? How often does he expect them to be used in the different categories? What size of penalty does he expect to be applied?

I also want clarification on the individual member’s ability to enforce orders. Thankfully, we had clarification from the Minister that individuals outside a dispute cannot be involved, but there is a possibility that members of the union that was party to the dispute who were not personally involved could attempt to enforce orders.

The Committee might wonder why I am worried about that, but there are circumstances in which a couple of individuals who are members of a union may be involved in malicious activity and attempt to undermine others who have taken a wider, collective decision that was endorsed by other members. I want to understand who can be involved in attempting to enforce a certification officer’s orders. Can that be any member of the union involved whether or not they were personally involved in the case? I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify those points.

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)

New schedule A4 to the 1992 Act will enable the certification officer to issue financial penalties or conditional financial penalties in those areas where he has existing powers to issue declarations and enforcement orders, which will provide a consistent approach. He will also be able to issue those penalties for breaches of the new annual reporting requirements on trade unions in relation to details of industrial action and political fund expenditure. Those areas are all listed in paragraph 1 of the new schedule.

Paragraph 4 of the new schedule requires the certification officer, before issuing a penalty, to provide written reasons for his decision, which will allow the union to know why the certification officer has found against it. The union will also have the opportunity to make written representations and may be given the opportunity to make oral representations.

Paragraph 5 of the new schedule provides for appeals to the Employment Appeal Tribunal based on an error of fact or a point of law, or on the grounds that the decision to impose a financial penalty or conditional financial penalty is unreasonable. The appeal grounds are similar to those provided for in other financial penalty regimes and will ensure that a wrong decision can be challenged.

Paragraph 3 of the new schedule provides for enforcement of conditional penalties. In cases of non-compliance, the certification officer will issue a further order requiring that a penalty be paid immediately or by a certain date. Where a union has provided evidence of partial compliance, the certification officer will have flexibility to reduce the amount of the penalty should he choose to do so. That will encourage unions to comply with conditional penalty orders while punishing those that take no steps towards compliance.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth asked whether any member of the union about which a complaint has been made, including members who were not themselves complainants, can apply to court for the enforcement of the certification officer’s orders. My understanding is that currently, under the 1992 Act, it is possible for any union member to apply for enforcement of such orders, but I am happy to write to him with the full detail if that is helpful.

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

Are there any cumulative limits on the number of financial penalties or the total amount that can be imposed on any one subject in the legislation within a year, or could numerous orders of up to £20,000 be imposed, with no limit on the overall amount sought? Obviously, due to vexatious actions or fishing expeditions and so on, a union could be subject to hundreds of thousands of pounds in penalties in a year as a result of investigations, without any kind of limit.

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 is no limit, but as the hon. Gentleman points out, if a union is subject to vexatious complaints, the certification officer will not find in favour of the complainant or impose a penalty. As I have explained, the union will have every opportunity to appeal any penalty imposed improperly. Although I understand the drift of his concern, the provisions already protect unions from vexatious complaints that might lead to an accumulation of penalties.

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

There is, of course, a downside for the trade unions even in that situation, in that it is the trade union that will have to pay for the investigation.

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 will move on, I believe, to the question of how the costs of the certification officer will be paid for. It is absolutely right that the Government are proposing that, in common with other regulators, the certification officer will be paid for by the regulated. However, again, if vexatious complaints are made, we have every reason to expect the certification officer, who has all the powers necessary to do so, simply to dismiss them and not to pursue them to the detriment of union finances.

On that basis, 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 36 Decision Time — Clause 16 - Further powers of Certification Officer where enforcement order made

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.