Trade Union Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament on 10th November 2015.

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Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-14766, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, on the Trade Union Bill.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

I have asked for this debate as I believe that the United Kingdom Government’s Trade Union Bill presents a threat to the fundamental rights of workers and an unacceptable threat to Scotland’s approach to industrial relations.

Let me cut to the chase—there is no part of the bill that we think is a good idea and we think that the whole bill is a thoroughly bad idea. It is bad for workers, it is bad for business and it is bad for Scotland. For that reason, I have asked the UK Government to exclude Scotland from the bill in its entirety. However, if the UK Government is unwilling to exclude us, I have made it clear that it should seek the consent of the Scottish Parliament before attempting to impose this ill-thought-through legislation on Scotland.

I have asked our legal advisers to explore several possible bases for a legislative consent memorandum and motion. The first of those is a letter written by the UK Minister of State for Skills, Nick Boles, on 22 October, to the lead bill committee at Westminster. That letter suggested that secretaries of state should be given responsibility for making regulations to impose public requirements on employers in their portfolios. On that basis, the Scottish ministers would be responsible for making those decisions in Scotland, for example in relation to health service bodies and local authorities.

Secondly, I am concerned about the impact on public authorities in Scotland, which are largely devolved, in particular the impact on the assets of public authorities, including their employment contracts and good industrial relations.

A third area to explore is whether the bill breaches the terms of the European convention on human rights. The arguments that have been put to me by the Scottish Trades Union Congress and, in a highly significant move, the Law Society of Scotland indicates that that may be the case.

Finally, we believe that the bill impacts on the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act 1949, which is a devolved area of responsibility, and in particular on the section of that act that relates to the terms and conditions of employment for workers who are employed in agriculture.

All those issues might give grounds for the Parliament to seek consent, but we must be aware that this is uncharted territory. We have never before been in a position in which the UK and Scottish Governments have not agreed on issues of legislative consent. That is indicative of the importance of the bill and, unfortunately, the lack of dialogue from the UK Government before the bill was introduced.

Ultimately, it will be for the parliamentary authorities to decide on the need for a consent motion, but the political will of the Government is clear. In my view, it is entirely right that the Parliament has the opportunity to vote on proposed legislation that I believe is aggressive, regressive and an unwarranted ideological attack on workers’ rights. The bill is not supported by any evidence but is driven by dogma and is designed to undermine the trade union movement. I believe that many members who are in the chamber will share my concerns.

I am disappointed but not surprised to note that at no point ahead of publishing the bill did the UK Government seek our views on how the measures will apply to Scotland. Unless the bill is amended, it will undoubtedly have an impact on the way in which many of our public sector bodies operate in areas of devolved responsibility. The UK Government has made no attempt to understand the Scottish position or to address the concerns that we have raised. That stance was very evident on Tuesday 13 October when I, together with Grahame Smith from the STUC, gave evidence to the House of Commons standing committee on the bill, which, it has to be said, was an interesting experience worth a whole different speech. Tory members on that committee made it crystal clear that they had not the slightest interest in the potential impact of the bill and intend to legislate regardless of any consequences.

That is just not acceptable. It does not reflect a mature devolution settlement and it is one of the reasons why I have asked that Scotland be excluded from the bill altogether. Given the significant impact that the bill will have, at the very least the UK Government should have to seek the approval of the Scottish Parliament before enforcing the legislation in Scotland.

Our programme for government sets out a vision of Scotland being the best place in the UK to do business. Our economic strategy outlines our plans to develop a Scotland where everyone can reap the benefits of an inclusive and growing economy. Our commitment to fair work is central to those aspirations, and that must be built on a progressive approach to industrial relations that delivers a fairer and more successful society. Of course, that is the approach that many of the most successful European countries have taken.

Trade unions are key social partners. There is clear evidence that unionised workplaces have more engaged staff, a higher level of staff training and a progressive approach to staff wellbeing. As the cabinet secretary with responsibility for fair work, part of my role is to ensure that Scotland takes a progressive approach in the area of employment rights, which I am absolutely committed to doing. Since the start of the current Administration in 2007, industrial disputes in Scotland have decreased by 84 per cent. The Scottish trend in days lost to industrial disputes is the lowest of all the UK nations, which I believe is a reflection of our commitment to effective industrial relations in Scotland. Our strategy underlines the belief that a progressive approach to industrial relations and to trade unionism is at the very heart of a fairer and more successful society.

The proposals that are set out in the Trade Union Bill are totally at odds with that approach. My real fear is that if the bill is enacted as it is now, it will destabilise the balance of the employer-employee relationship, which will make it more difficult for employers to have their voice heard, will encourage conflict with unions and will make employees feel further removed from their working environment.

Last year’s working together review, chaired by former Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, Jim Mather, highlighted the importance of unions to the success of both businesses and their workers. We have already undertaken many of the review recommendations, and earlier this year I set out how all of the recommendations would be taken forward. That included additional funding for the STUC, part of which will be used to support unions in developing their leadership capacity, which is an important sign of our commitment to supporting the positive role of unions in the workplace.

We would rather bring unions, employees and employers together in a more constructive dialogue. The fair work convention shows how we are doing that in practice, asking unions and employers to work together to develop a shared framework for fair work by March 2016. Just this week, I have received a letter from the co-chairs of that convention, setting out their concerns that the Trade Union Bill risks undermining the constructive relationship between employers and unions that forms the foundations of the fair work approach. I deeply share their reservations. The importance of employment rights must not be understated. They serve to not only protect the opportunity and dignity of individual employees, but strengthen our workforce, workplaces and economy.

In its statement on the UK Government proposals, the campaign organisation Liberty says that the bill’s proposals

“represent a significant, unnecessary and unjustified intrusion by the State into the freedom of association and assembly of trade union members, undermine the right to private and family life, and jeopardise the UK’s important history of supporting peaceful protest.”

As Liberty also points out, it is difficult to identify any evidence for the bill proposals. Even the UK Government’s own Regulatory Policy Committee has described the impact assessments that support the bill as “not fit for purpose” and highlights a severe lack of evidence to support the Tories’ proposed legislation.

There is a clear recurring theme here. Far from increasing turnout and democratising the ballot system, the bill will serve only to make it almost impossible for union members to withdraw their labour, suppressing the capabilities of organised labour. Further, the bill’s reduction in the mandate time of any ballot will not allow for constructive dialogue to seek mutually beneficial solutions. Instead, in all likelihood, it will deliver earlier negotiation breakdown or the taking of premature action, neither of which fosters effective industrial relations in partnership.

Employees must have the ability to demonstrate appropriately through strike action. Bringing in untrained agency workers raises health and safety risks if untrained or unqualified staff are brought in to deliver the roles of striking staff. I am appalled by the UK Government’s proposal for agency workers to cover a valid withdrawal of labour. The Scottish Government fundamentally opposes bringing in agency staff to cover strike action, and I make a guarantee today that we simply will not use agency workers to do so.

We have worked hard to engender a mature, positive relationship of respect and partnership with the unions that represent public service workers where there is devolved responsibility. Concerns similar to ours are shared across the wider public sector, not least about the proposals to limit facility time in the public sector. Facility time is an essential element in supporting a partnership working approach between employer and unions, and its use varies across organisations. Employers have regularly told me about their ability to call on union reps to discuss not only big changes in the workplace but also how to manage the day-to-day business effectively, and the restrictions on facility time and check-off that are proposed for the public sector, under the guise of value for money for the taxpayer, are unfounded.

Far from offering better value, those restrictions will disadvantage our public services and those who work in them, resulting in a greater cost to the taxpayer. That fact alone supports our position that it should be for individual employers to determine the services that they provide in order to support the type of industrial relations that they seek. Scottish ministers should be able to determine how we deliver our effective Scottish public services, and we will continue to do so.

So much of the impact that the proposed legislation will have remains unclear, and there is significant scope for abuse in future. The bill is being rushed through the Westminster parliamentary system with little regard for our constitutional interests or devolved differences. Extensive parts of the bill are to be set out in regulations with no formal opportunity for the Scottish Government or this Parliament to influence. It is almost as if Westminster is legislating for a perceived English problem—although I would dispute that it is even that—and has decided to impose its deeply flawed solution on Scotland and the other devolved nations with no regard whatever for the need or consequences. It is shoddy, shabby government.

I am sure that the majority of those in the chamber share my grave concerns. I propose that all parties stand together in opposing the bill and stand up for the working rights of our people. We will continue to support our public services and to do every single thing that we can to stop this bill.

It is essential that we work as part of a united effort to oppose the bill as it passes through both houses of the UK Parliament. On that basis, we must continue to make the case for a more positive approach. I do not think that we should be giving up on that.

As the First Minister has made clear, the Scottish Government has no intention of cooperating on a bill that breaches the rights of trade union members. But for now we must focus on getting Scotland excluded from the bill completely. If that is not possible, I propose that the Parliament should send a clear message that the consent of the Scottish Parliament should be sought before enacting the legislation in Scotland.

I move,

That the Parliament opposes and condemns the Trade Union Bill as proposed by the UK Government; believes that it restricts the fundamental rights of workers to organise, bargain collectively and, if necessary, withdraw their labour, and further believes that it will both undermine the effective engagement of trade unions across Scottish workplaces and, in particular, across the Scottish public sector.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I rise to move the amendment in my name and support the Scottish Government motion.

I declare an interest, in that I am a member of Unite the union. Indeed, I have been a member of a trade union every day of my adult life. My grandfather was a trade union activist and my father was secretary of his local branch.

As a teacher, I was the school representative for the Educational Institute of Scotland—the EIS—and when I worked for Oxfam I was a Transport and General Workers Union negotiating representative on the joint trade union shop, negotiating salaries and terms for thousands of staff across dozens of countries. I still keep with great pride a founder-member card for the National Organization of Teachers in Mozambique—the ONP—which was set up when I worked there in the early 1980s.

I appreciate that none of that makes me a horny-handed son of toil, nor is it meant to be what the poet Tom Leonard would call bunnet hustling. It is simply to demonstrate that trade unionism is a part of me and who I am. That is true for pretty well all my colleagues on these benches and some on other benches, too. It is true of the mining communities that I serve and the party that I represent, which was founded by a trade unionist, Keir Hardie, so that the values and purpose of trade unionism would find political expression in Parliament. It is true of Scotland, past and present.

One of the great deceits of the attack on trade unionism that this bill represents is that it attempts to characterise trade unions as being solely about industrial conflicts, strikes and pickets. In truth, they are about the fundamental right of workers and their families to organise in solidarity with each other for the betterment of all. That wider role of trade unions is exactly what underpins the Government’s working together review and the inception of the fair work convention, which the minister referred to and which brings together Government, trade unions and employers, to their credit, in a constructive partnership for the future.

Meanwhile, the Tory Government produces this bill. Whatever it pretends to be, it is aimed at undermining the capacity of trade unions to organise. Its purpose is to disable and even destroy the trade union movement, and especially public sector trade unions. After all, if its purpose were solely to limit industrial action, why on earth would it be brought forward now? Thirty-five years ago, as many as 29 million working days were lost to strike action in a single year. The total now is barely a hundredth of that, and two-thirds of strikes that take place nowadays last for only a day. The implication that the trade union movement is one of mindless militancy is just absurd.

Industrial action already requires the support of members in ballots, and the bill’s attempt to impose thresholds on those ballots—thresholds that no elected politician would countenance when it came to their own election—is an anti-democratic outrage.

Removing the ban on agency workers replacing strikers is an attempt to turn industrial relations back not just to the last century but to the one before it. Restrictions on facility time, which compromise the right of a representative to have time off for trade union work, are a naked attempt to undermine the day-to-day work of union reps in representing their members. That is a wide range of representation, including health and safety reps, trade union learning reps as well as representation in grievances and disputes.

The barriers proposed to unions collecting subs through check-off and maintaining a political fund are a straightforward attack on the capacity of trade unions to retain members and campaign on their behalf. That might well have consequences for the funding of the Labour Party, but driving a coach and horses through the convention against partisan action on party funding—a convention going all the way back to Churchill—means that, make no mistake, this is an issue not just for those unions affiliated to Labour. My old union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, is not affiliated, nor, I fear, is it ever likely to affiliate to the Labour Party, but it maintains a political fund to campaign on behalf of its members on education issues, on poverty and on cuts to public expenditure.

There can be no doubt. The bill is designed not to regulate the trade union movement but to undermine it. It is one of a suite of measures—from scrapping the Human Rights Act 1998 to gagging charities to restricting freedom of information—that add up to a wider agenda by the Tory Government to curb democratic rights and compromise civil liberties. It should be opposed in Westminster and resisted in local authorities, many of which are following Labour Glasgow’s lead in declaring that they will not cooperate with the bill’s measures. It should be formally resisted in this chamber, too. I agree with the minister on that. Employment law is reserved but we believe that the impact of parts of the bill on the executive competence of the Scottish Government means that the bill should require a legislative consent motion in this Parliament. That was the view of the minister when she gave evidence on the bill at Westminster and it is her view today. We agree, as do Unison and the STUC.

Like the minister, I have sought legal guidance. Patrick McGuire of Thompsons Solicitors said to me in an email this week:

“At the highest level an LCM is a means by which the Scottish Parliament can express the will of the Scottish electorate in relation to matters of Westminster legislation which impact on devolved matters or key powers of the Parliament and Scottish Government as given to them by the Scotland Act. An LCM is not a power; it is a right to express that will. ... Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament should be interpreted against that background.

The Scottish Government are given significant statutory and budgetary powers to employ staff. The power to employ staff and determine that staff’s terms and conditions is a key executive power and an essential issue of executive competence. ...

The Trade Union Bill significantly impacts upon and undermines the Scottish Government’s executive power and ... competence in relation to employing their staff in that context. Accordingly, in that context the Scottish Parliament should certainly have the right to debate an LCM on the relevant provisions of the Trade Union Bill.”

I have written with that advice to the head of the parliamentary business team and asked the clerks to investigate whether an LCM would be relevant in the context of the bill. I explained why I believe that an LCM is competent and required. I propose to lodge an LCM at the earliest opportunity or indeed to support the Government, should it feel able to do so.

I believe that the chamber will say no to the Trade Union Bill this evening, but we must find a way to say no formally, too.

That Mozambican teachers trade union that I joined years ago was new because that was a country that was trying to build freedom and civil society from the legacy of colonialism. All nations that seek to build a democratic society, based on rights, know that they need strong and free trade unions. How much more then should we, so proud of our long-established democratic credentials, understand and defend the importance of trade unions being free to organise, free to act in defence of their members and free to argue for the improvement of society for all?

The trade union movement is right to reject the bill and we should stand tonight four-square in solidarity with it.

I move amendment S4M-14766.2 to insert at end

“, and believes that free and healthy trade unions are an important element of a modern democracy”.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I believe that trade unions are an important and valuable part of society, and I have written as much in the past. The trade union movement has a proud history of campaigning for workers’ rights and to improve health and safety in the workplace, and of representing its members when they are in need of support. The concept of trade unions as voluntary associations is entirely in tune with Conservative philosophy. They are partners in progress in creating a stronger society—one with good-quality jobs, fair conditions and decent levels of pay.

That said, there are real concerns about the balance between the right to strike and the misery that such an action will cause to the public, particularly when we are dealing with vital public services such as the national health service, the fire service, transport and schools. That is why the Trade Union Bill has been brought forward at Westminster.

I remind the chamber that there was a very clear pledge in the Conservative manifesto for the recent general election to legislate in this area. I appreciate that, given their track record, other parties might be confused when a Government is elected that then endeavours to keep the promises that it made prior to an election, but that is exactly what the Conservative Government is doing and if it is to be challenged for that, the appropriate place for that to be done is in the House of Commons.

This is the second week in a row that we are having a debate on a reserved issue. Whatever its merits or otherwise, the Trade Union Bill is being considered by Scotland’s other Parliament, at Westminster. For the second week in a row, we are devoting a large part of Tuesday afternoon to discussing a matter that is properly the responsibility of another Parliament, where it is currently being actively debated, as the cabinet secretary said.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Does the member accept that the bill impacts on public services in Scotland, such as the fire service, local government and the NHS, and that this Parliament has the right to express its view on it?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Mr Findlay is well aware that employment law is a reserved matter for the UK Parliament, as Mr Gray has just stated.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I do not remember Mr Findlay’s colleagues on the Smith commission arguing, when that matter came to the commission, that it should be devolved. Indeed, a wide range of people who gave evidence to the Smith commission, including employers organisations, business organisations and workers organisations, including the Trades Union Congress, argued that employment law should continue to be reserved.

Is there any reason why the Scottish Government is spending so much time talking about reserved issues? Could it possibly be because its record on devolved matters is such a dismal one? Whether in education, the health service or justice, the failures are piling up. Why are we not spending our time discussing those matters, rather than matters that are properly the preserve of Westminster?

There are, after all, 59 Scottish members of Parliament in the House of Commons whose job is to represent the views of their constituents in these matters. Of course, perhaps the Scottish Government believes that 56—or is it 55—of those representatives are so inept that they cannot make the case stand up for Scotland, so the Scottish Government has to bypass them entirely and bring reserved matters for debate to this chamber, but this chamber should not be duplicating the work of the House of Commons.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

Will the member give way? [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Order, please. Mr Harvie, do you have a point of order?

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

No—I am asking whether Mr Fraser will take an intervention.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That is up to Mr Fraser.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

No, thank you. I will make some progress. I want to get on to the substance of the Trade Union Bill.

I will deal briefly with the essential elements in the bill, just to put them on the record. The Conservative manifesto commitment was that

“Strikes should only ever be the result of a clear, positive decision based on a ballot in which at least half the workforce has voted. This turnout threshold will be an important and fair step to rebalance the interests of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions.”

In relation to essential public services such as health, education, fire and transport, industrial action

“would require the support of at least 40 per cent of all those entitled to take part in strike ballots—as well as a majority of those who actually turn out to vote.”

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

No, thank you.

There are numerous past examples of strikes in essential services that went ahead with a very poor level of support from members. Unison balloted its members in NHS England, including nurses, paramedics and cooks, in September 2014 for strike action. Just 16 per cent of them voted, and 11 per cent of all union members voted in favour. Last year’s tube strikes in London were voted for by fewer than one third of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union members. The National Union of Teachers in England voted for strike action in September 2012 with only 27 per cent voting and only 22 per cent of all union members voting in favour of a strike.

The important issue is that those strikes affect everyone. Strikes in education are hugely disruptive for not just children, but parents who have to make alternative childcare arrangements. Because of the public inconvenience, there is a clear public interest in ensuring that strikes that are held require substantial support in a trade union.

Iain Gray referred to the turnout in general elections, where members of Parliament and other representatives are elected. There is an important difference between general elections and strike ballots in trade unions in essential services, because everyone has the right to vote in a general election. Some people choose not to use that vote, but that is their choice. [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member is coming to a close. Order, please.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

In contrast, everyone can be affected by strikes in essential services where only a small minority of union members have the right to call a strike.

The UK Government has made it very clear that it is happy to table amendments to the bill in order to address some of the concerns that have been raised, in this debate and elsewhere. It will be happy to do so in response to concerns that have been aired in the House of Commons, which is the appropriate forum for discussing those matters.

I have pleasure in moving amendment S4M-14766.1, to leave out from “opposes” to end and insert:

“considers that trade unions are valuable institutions in society with a long history of promoting workers’ rights, improving health and safety in the workplace and representing members when they are in need of support; notes that the UK Government was elected on a manifesto commitment to ensure that strikes can only be undertaken on the basis of ‘a clear, positive decision’ of trade union members, that union political fund payments would only be raised by a voluntary opt-in system and that reform of a number of areas of trade union legislation would be introduced; understands that, as agreed by all parties in the Scottish Parliament in the Smith Commission process and in line with the views of numerous employer, business and workers’ organisations that gave evidence to the commission, employment law is a reserved matter for the UK Parliament, and notes that the Trade Union Bill, which has been introduced to implement these manifesto commitments, is currently being considered by the UK Parliament”.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We now move to the open debate. I am afraid that we are rather tight for time. Speeches should be a maximum of six minutes, please.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

During the Smith commission negotiations, civic Scotland called for devolution actions that covered various aspects of what we are discussing. The STUC called for the devolution of employment law, health and safety, trade union law and the minimum wage. Children 1st called for the devolution of employment rights and conditions to create a much more family-friendly employment regime. Engender and the equalities organisations called for the devolution of equalities legislation.

Unfortunately, the Scottish National Party and the Greens were not supported in those demands during the Smith commission negotiations, and as the Scotland Bill progresses through Westminster, there appears to be no wish there to change that position. We must therefore recognise where we are, with proposed legislation that, in the words of Grahame Smith of the STUC is “vindictive, unfair and unnecessary”. We have to debate that position and move forward as united as possible in the Parliament in opposing the attack by the Conservatives on

“the fundamental rights of workers to organise, bargain collectively and, if necessary, withdraw their labour”,

as Roseanna Cunningham said in the motion. Those fundamental rights have been marched for and fought for by men and women right across our land. For that reason alone, I would be opposed to the Trade Union Bill.

Iain Gray’s amendment states:

“free and healthy trade unions are an important element of a modern democracy”.

Yes, they are. The Conservative Government must recognise that, but it wishes its ideology to be unchallenged as often as possible. For that reason alone, I would be opposed to the Trade Union Bill.

The issues of ballots, picketing, opt-in, facility time, check-off and industrial action have been discussed right across the country and they continue to be discussed. Neil Findlay MSP and I recently spoke at a well-attended South Lanarkshire trades union council meeting in East Kilbride with South Lanarkshire councillors and the STUC. It was interesting that the man who chaired that meeting, John Keenan of the trades union council, was one of the three East Kilbride folk at Rolls-Royce who refused to work on the engines that would enable people to be murdered by Pinochet during his terrible regime in Chile. I have been thinking about where the Tories will go next with their legislation if they get the Trade Union Bill through. I have wondered how the Trade Union Bill would have affected the likes of John Keenan and his friends, who took that very principled and right stand against their employer and were protected by their union. It was very obvious to those who attended the meeting that the bill is an absolutely deliberate attack by the UK Government to undermine trade unions and therefore workers. It was also obvious to them that the Scottish Government has a very different way of doing things.

The Scottish Government views trade unions as partners, not opponents. In fact, I could expand that. I do not mean only the Scottish Government, because I think that most MSPs in the chamber and most of Scotland view trade unions as part of the fabric of our society and as partners, not opponents. The Scottish Government has shown that in various ways. It has taken further action to promote the real living wage through providing funding for the Living Wage Foundation, through its public sector pay policy and through the Scottish business pledge.

The trade unions are key social partners. In fact, the Scottish Government has a memorandum of understanding with the STUC. It seems to me that the Trade Union Bill, as well as an absolute attack on workers rights and an example of the UK Government wanting to be able to ride roughshod over many things, is also an example of the UK Government seeking to interfere with devolved Administrations, local authorities and public bodies’ rights to determine their own industrial relations. It is part of a wider Tory programme to restrict employees’ rights. They have removed legal aid access for personal injury claims, made changes to unfair dismissal—a person must now be employed for two years before they can meet the qualifying period for unfair dismissal—made changes to employment tribunals and restricted access to workplace justice by imposing tribunal fees. As far as I am concerned, that is all part of the great plan. It looks as though we are going back to the dark ages. We are going back to the times that the likes of Orwell and Tressell wrote about. We have to guard against the Tory approach, because once we lose hard-earned rights, it will be difficult to get them back.

The Scottish Government has called for Scotland to be excluded from the Trade Union Bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I ask the member to draw to a close, please.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

Yes, Presiding Officer. It has also been very clear from the SNP’s point of view that, while the bill progresses through the House of Commons, we will take absolutely every opportunity to oppose it at every stage.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am afraid that you must close, please.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

I know that most MSPs in this chamber will back us and join us in doing that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you. I must ask members to keep to their six minutes or, I am afraid, others will lose out and be unable to speak in the debate.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I declare an interest as a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland and Unite the union. I joined EIS as a young school teacher not just because I wanted to protect my terms and conditions, but because I believed that my doing so was an opportunity to shape educational thinking and opportunities for our young people. Today, we must look at what action we can take here. I commend local councils’ work, which has been driven particularly by the Labour councils, on how we can protect people. This is also a matter of solidarity with people right across the United Kingdom who need the support of trade unions in their everyday lives.

When looking at legislation, it is always useful to explore its purpose. If the Trade Union Bill is the answer, what on earth is the question? As an answer, it will make it more difficult for people to be members of trade unions and for trade unions to support their members to influence, co-operate with or challenge their employers. What problem does the bill address that requires those solutions?

There are people who propose support for the bill who like to create the impression of a world of overweening trade union power, in which unions bully and intimidate employers and hold the people of this country to ransom. That may be the view that the Tories wish to create, but it is not the real world.

In the real world of work, life is different. Strikes are rare. People across our communities have been suffering the economic and social consequences of a financial crisis that was brought on not by rampant trade unionism, but by the reckless and dangerous decisions of people in our banks and financial institutions who have a huge amount of power. In the real world, many trade unions worked to mitigate the impact of the crisis by accepting cuts to conditions in order to secure people’s jobs.

In the real world, people are delivering services, doing more and are stretching further when people leave and are not replaced. In the real world, people working in retail, in care and in hospitality and beyond are expected to be increasingly flexible but with fewer guarantees and less security of employment than there have been for many generations. There is increased evidence of the stress that is being felt by people who are willing to work, who continue to seek work despite the odds but who for their trouble see their incomes being reduced through cuts to tax credits.

In the real world, the scandal of blacklisting remains unresolved. When an individual raises a problem or a concern about health and safety, the solution is not to sort out the problem but to get rid of the person who was raising those concerns.

The truth is that, in the real world, trade unions are a force for good. They ensure the importance of health and safety, they encourage partnership between employers and employees and they negotiate during difficulties. I say very gently to the Scottish Government that if it had listened to the unions—in particular the civilian police unions—we might have had fewer concerns about Police Scotland than we currently do.

The Trade Union Bill, far from improving those relationships, will break them down. Strike action represents failure, but the bill will create a further imbalance between employer and employee. The danger is that the bill will increase the complexity of complying with strike ballots and open up increased opportunities for employers to exploit technical issues around a ballot rather than focusing on solutions to the problems that have emerged in a dispute in the first place.

There is a challenge for our economy, and it is about the nature and quality of the jobs that people do. To ensure the absence of doubt, I say that the evidence shows that poor quality jobs, in which people have little control over their conditions and hours, are not just bad for people’s health, but are bad for our economic performance. The evidence also shows that trade-unionised workplaces improve the quality of work. It is contrary and dangerous, and it makes no sense, to opt for hostility rather than for co-operation.

Rather than the Tory Government introducing that legislation and hastening the decline of the trade unions, it should work with trade unions to increase their membership for the betterment of our economy. I believe that the bill represents self-indulgent Tory politicking, when the truth is that working people are under real pressure and the economy continues to struggle.

The Tory Government should stop drawing cartoon depictions of what trade unions do, recognise their critical role in supporting people in good and safe work and a strong economy, show maturity and withdraw the bill.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

Grahame Smith, the Scottish Trades Union Congress’s general secretary, addressed the SNP conference in Aberdeen last month and talked about the iniquities of the Tory Trade Union Bill, which aims to restrict trade union activity and to impose greater restrictions on workers. He said:

“this is a bill presented as solutions to problems that simply don’t exist. We do not have a strike problem. And even if we did, that would be no reason to trample over workers’ civil and human rights.”

The bill received its second reading at Westminster and was debated in committee. SNP and Labour MPs opposed every clause. However, it was not just SNP and Labour MPs who opposed the bill. David Davis, the Conservative MP, said:

“I am particularly offended by the idea that a picket organiser needs to give his name to the police … This is a serious restriction of freedom of association.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 14 September 2015; Vol 599, col 799-800.]

The Society of Radiographers, which represents NHS professionals, said that the UK Government has

“promoted this Bill as enhancing trade union democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The bill will change turnout thresholds, and the society went on to explain that many of its

“members abstain from voting in industrial action ballots. This is a principled position they wish to take but then abide by the decision and participate. Unfortunately this Bill will no longer allow members to abstain and would instead regard them as voting against industrial action.”

The UK Government’s proposal to introduce a 50 per cent turnout threshold for industrial action ballots has been called into question under article 11 of the European convention on human rights, and Thompsons Solicitors has stated that

“It is likely that the 50 per cent turnout requirement is unlawful.”

Even the Law Society of Scotland has raised concerns about the issue. In its written evidence to the UK Parliament, it said:

The Memorandum on Human Rights Compatibility published July 2015 did not address compatibility with European Social Charter, International Labour Organization and International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights obligations ... We would suggest that further consideration be given to whether the Bill’s provisions comply with these ratified treaties.”

If the bill is about increasing trade union democracy, why not allow electronic voting? Newspapers regularly ask readers to vote online in order to gauge opinion, political parties use electronic voting for internal elections and millions are traded electronically worldwide on the stock market but—somehow—trade union voting alone is not suitable for electronic voting.

The Trade Union Bill that is proceeding through Westminster has no place in a modern Scotland where the fair work convention is promoting new partnership working between employers, employees, trade unions, public bodies and the Scottish Government. Let us consider the proposal on facility time. North Lanarkshire Council highlighted that issue, saying:

“The value of facility time is well documented, enabling meaningful consultation to take place between employees and their employers and promoting good workplace relations.”

There is also the new clause on collection of union dues. Because the UK Government introduced it recently, it could not be debated at the bill’s second reading. The new clause 14 would prohibit the deduction of union subscriptions from the wages of public sector employees. The employers to which that would apply will be defined later in regulations. Companies and public bodies already allow wage deductions for a range of payments, including charitable donations, loan repayments, council tax arrestment, Child Support Agency payments, benevolent funds, welfare associations, credit union savings and staff association subscriptions. As the facility is in place for all those other deductions, it is not credible to claim that financial savings can be made if union fees are removed from the process.

When it comes to the political levy, we must remember that legislation already requires a ballot of all members before a political fund is established, and that those who wish to opt out can do so once it is established. Also, a large proportion of the Trade Union Congress’s member unions are not affiliated to the Labour Party, including the Fire Brigades Union, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Public and Commercial Services Union, to name but a few. Those unions use their political funds for campaigns on subjects ranging from protection of public services to health and safety, and for supporting anti-fascist and anti-racist organisations, which receive the majority of their funding from trade unions. The bill is an attack on trade unions’ ability to campaign on behalf of their members and the wider community.

The STUC wants trade union legislation to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. If it is not, public sector employers in Scotland, which have responsibility for wholly devolved areas of public service, will be prevented from managing employment relations and engaging with staff in a constructive manner.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Will you draw to a close, please?

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

The British Medical Association believes that if the bill becomes law,

“The imposition of tighter restrictions on trade unions may have the inadvertent effect of prolonging workplace disputes, thereby making it more difficult to resolve disputes amicably.”

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

The Trade Union Bill is not so much a bill to aid the operation of effective and democratic trade unions as it is a means to neuter them and to prevent them from properly representing their members. It is purely party political. It will not help to address industrial disputes, but seeks simply to undermine the Labour Party.

We believe that responsible trade unions are vital in standing up for workers’ rights, improving productivity and protecting against workplace abuse and bullying. The Conservative Government is trying to solve a problem that does not really exist.

The Government claims that the bill is necessary due to the increase in strike action over the past few years. There has been a 77 per cent increase in the number of working days lost through industrial action, from 440,000 days in 2013 to 788,000 days in 2014—a figure that is higher than in previous decades. However, that is to be expected in a period of great financial difficulty, and it is no surprise that more people were in dispute with their employers over that period. To claim that it was, somehow, the result of more active and irresponsible trade unions is wrong.

It is understandable why many people believe that that argument is being used as cover for producing a series of measures that are designed to limit the power of a key Labour Party ally and to put Labour on the wrong side of public opinion, but they are wrong about that happening. Polling by Ipsos MORI in 2014 found that 77 per cent of people believed that

“trade unions are essential to protect workers’ interests”,

whereas only 14 per cent did not believe that, and only 29 per cent believed that unions are too powerful.

I will reflect on the role that the Liberal Democrats have played on this issue over the past few years. The bill is almost entirely made up of measures that were proposed by the Conservatives in government, but were blocked by Vince Cable and Nick Clegg. It is no coincidence that the bill was not introduced in the past five years; we stood firm against the proposed measures. In July 2014, The Guardian reported that Vince Cable had opposed attempts to tighten the law on industrial action.

On 21 March this year, Vince Cable had drawn up the measures on e-balloting to which Gordon MacDonald just referred, but the Government has now dropped e-balloting. If the Government was genuinely interested in greater democracy within the trade unions, it would make it easier for trade union members to vote, but it is not doing that and those proposals are off the table.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Does Willie Rennie find it ironic that the Tories will use e-balloting to select their candidate for the London mayoral election but will not trust anybody else to use e-balloting?

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Neil Findlay is absolutely right. That tells us everything about the UK Government’s priorities. The bill is not about democratisation and improving trade unions or about workers’ rights: it is about trying to do down Mr Findlay’s party and about trying to turn public opinion against trade unions, but I do not think that it is going to work.

A number of the measures that the UK Government is proposing would be detrimental to industrial relations. I believe in having good industrial relations to ensure better productivity and protection for workers against abuse and intimidation. It is important to have effective relationships between employers, workers and trade unions. It is wrong to put an arbitrary 50 per cent threshold in the way, and I think that that would potentially result in more legal strikes over time. It would not help to resolve industrial disputes. Someone mentioned how trade unions work actively with management to deal with industrial disputes before they go too far. If that balance of power is shifted, that may lead to even greater grievances and greater detriment to that relationship in the workplace.

On political funds, I find it difficult to believe that the Conservatives cannot come to some universal agreement about the funding of political parties. They are trying to pick off the Labour Party and the trade unions separately instead of addressing the desperate need to have a proper funding arrangement for all political parties. We attempted to deal with that in the House of Commons over the past few years, but the discussions broke down for one reason or another. If we are going to change the funding arrangements of political parties for the good of long-term interest in political parties, that change needs to be universal. I do not think that this half-cocked way of trying to resolve the funding issue is going to help.

I come to this argument from the point of view of trying to improve relationships within workplaces but also trying to protect civil liberties. I am sometimes amused to see who is against the Trade Union Bill. The British Medical Association, which is hardly part of the international brotherhood and fellowship, is opposed to the bill and is challenging it because it thinks that it will not help workplace harmony. I agree with the BMA. On the grounds of civil liberties, workplace harmony and higher productivity, Liberal Democrats will oppose the Trade Union Bill.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

A casual observer from somewhere else in Europe might be forgiven for thinking that the Westminster Government seems determined to restrict the fundamental rights of ordinary people. That goes from monitoring everything that we do and say on the phone or online to trying to withdraw our essential human rights, which are protected under European Union legislation.

We have just learned that Mr Cameron believes that everyone ought to have the right to broadband access, just as they have the right to utilities such as water and electricity. He said:

“Access to the internet shouldn't be a luxury; it should be a right—absolutely fundamental to life in 21st century Britain.”

I would not disagree with him for a moment, but that view sits very hypocritically alongside the Trade Union Bill, which is specifically designed to be restrictive. It is also rather ironic that the Prime Minister holds such a view, given that he has managed to propose a ban on trade union members voting online, as we have heard. He is saying that we should all have access to the internet but that we should not be allowed to use it to vote, which seems absolutely mental.

In my opinion, the bill is a ferocious attack on every aspect of trade unionism. It seeks to shift the balance of power in workplaces further to the advantage of employers and away from workers, whether they are union members or not. It is a fundamental attack on the core trade union activity of facility time and check-off and on the ability of unions to underpin collective bargaining with a credible right to strike. The bill will subject unions to unprecedented levels of civil and criminal penalties, red tape and monitoring by the certification officer, and it proposes to curtail unions’ abilities to fund political activities and campaigns.

We in Scotland must demand a legislative consent motion at Westminster that would allow us to refuse to comply with aspects of the bill. My colleagues—and, I am sure, colleagues of members of other parties—at Westminster plan to do just that.

The STUC has clearly advocated the devolution of workplace protection law to Scotland. That includes employment law, health and safety, equalities, minimum wages and, of course, the regulation of trade unions. Strangely, both the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress oppose that. I hope that they will change their mind on that.

As the cabinet secretary said, the Scottish Parliament will not be part of a race to the bottom in which different legislatures fight to reduce employment legislation to gain competitive advantage. Evidence from the New Economics Foundation shows that the workplaces with the most effective unions are those that have the best productivity and the best motivated workforces. Constraining trade unions is clearly economically misguided, just as it is completely misguided from the perspective of social justice, fairness and workers’ rights.

Although the Westminster Government recognises that, it does not dare to interfere with how the private sector manages its agreements with the trade unions, which means that we are looking forward to a discriminatory piece of legislation in which some workers will have rights while other workers—mainly workers in the public sector—will not.

The irony is that the taxpayers’ money that the Government says that it wants to save with the bill is not its money, yet Westminster is going to instruct us on how we spend it. The minister in charge, Nick Boles, has confirmed that, under the bill’s provisions, the NHS in England will be able to tell the NHS in Scotland how it can and cannot spend its money in relation to facility time and check-off. In effect, that will mean that the UK health minister will be able to tell the Scottish Parliament what it can and cannot do with its own resources. The bill is saying that the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities should not be allowed to choose to allocate resources to promote positive industrial relations, even though those resources are entirely separate from the UK Treasury.

There is also the planned requirement for a 50 per cent turnout for a strike ballot. In the case of essential public services, 40 per cent of the electorate will have to back a walk-out before it can be legal. Perhaps I should remind Murdo Fraser that the only Tory MP in Scotland managed to achieve 39.8 per cent of the vote only a few short months ago—maybe he should just give up his seat.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

It has clearly not occurred to the Government that many of its politicians, especially at local level, are elected on a turnout of less than 50 per cent. It has certainly not occurred to Murdo Fraser. Some Conservative MPs, including the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Sajid Javid, did not even get 40 per cent of the vote.

The Trade Union Bill starts from the false premise that unions are dangerous and bad.

Murdo Fraser rose—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member is not giving way, Mr Fraser.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

As a lifelong and proud trade unionist and a member of Unison, I know that that is not so and that trade unions contribute positively to the running of every public service and private sector operation that I have worked with. Why? Because their reason for existing is not only to seek better working conditions and practices but to co-operate with employers to create them. That is indeed a win-win situation. Trade unions want decent working practices as much as the bosses need them.

The SNP will defy any attempts to impose a bill on Scotland that the Scottish people do not want. As my colleague Chris Stephens MP put it, the bill is

“an act of first-rate bullying, only a week after describing Scottish MPs as second class, from a third rate administration, without the foresight to realise that they are sprinting towards a constitutional crisis.”

This nasty, vindictive piece of legislation is designed to water down the power of trade unions to stand up for basic workers’ rights. It hits at the heart of international conventions designed to keep workers safe and ensure fair conditions.

The UK Government appointed a regulatory policy committee to scrutinise the bill. What did it say? It said that the bill was not fit for purpose. I believe that it is not fit for purpose, we believe that it is not fit for purpose, and Scotland believes that it is not fit for purpose, so let us kill this bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Again, I remind members to keep to their six minutes.

Photo of Drew Smith Drew Smith Labour

I support the motion in the name of the cabinet secretary and, indeed, the Labour amendment, and I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

This Parliament was established on the back of a campaign for democracy that had the trade union movement at its heart. Without the activism of generations of trade unionists, none of us would be gathered in this place; and I know that without the support of my trade union I certainly would never have had the opportunity to serve here.

The Conservative amendment before us today states that

“trade unions are valuable institutions ... with a long history of promoting workers’ rights, improving health and safety ... and representing members ... in need of support”.

If we accepted the sincerity of the Scottish Conservatives in believing that trade unions are key social partners and a force for good in society, there would indeed be more common ground between us than the introduction of the Trade Union Bill suggests.

I have made the point here before that, although there are good employers and not-so-good employers, there is a fundamental truth borne out by the history of workers’ struggles that the selling of our labour has the potential to be exploited. Trade unions are voluntary associations of individuals who simply seek to collectivise their interests in order to rebalance that potential for exploitation in favour of partnerships between groups of workers and partnerships with employers, in order to minimise the risks that exist at work: the risk of ill-health, injury and even death; the risk of exploitation through unfair wages and working practices; and the risk of insecurity of work through short-termism and the tendency to put pursuit of profit above the interests of the community.

It is sometimes said that trade unions represent a gathering of optimists, which is what my colleague Johann Lamont said, when she was leader of my party, to the annual congress of the Scottish trade unions. It is the optimists who have struggled for safer workplaces, fairer wages and decency and respect, not just for workers but for all in our society. This bill is an attack on the fundamental optimism of organising for a fairer world. It is for that reason that it is being proposed by a Tory Government that stands opposed to the advancement of working people in this country and in defence of every privileged interest that the Tories enjoy and believe they are entitled to.

To require working people to achieve ballot thresholds that the Conservatives have no intention of applying to themselves is nothing short of hypocrisy; and to do so while denying unions the ability to access the tools to achieve higher turnouts with online or secure workplace balloting is nothing short of vindictive.

The attack on trade union finances is a completely illiberal move and a direct attack on the ability of working people to achieve the aims that the Conservatives’ amendment claims to support. It is, of course—Willie Rennie was right to say so—the Conservatives’ ultimate hope that the result will be financial penalty to the Labour Party, which is supported by some trade union organisations and which exists to further the interests of those who bear the cost of economic injustice.

Neither the Labour Party nor any trade union, whether affiliated or not, is a perfect institution, but the proposed changes are designed to make the cause that they serve less achievable and less efficient to organise. What a poverty of ideas and what weakness of confidence in their own arguments there must be among the Tories to use government to diminish the organisational ability of those who oppose them.

I therefore welcome the Scottish Government’s support in opposing these outdated and mendacious attacks on organised labour. This Parliament was created with the aid of trade unions and the aim of improving the lot of working people. The Scottish Government’s fair work agenda is an important step on that long road.

It is the lot of progressives, and of the labour movement in particular, not just to advance the cause of fairness but to continually defend each of our achievements—the achievements of generations of trade union organisers—against the continual efforts of conservatives to roll back, to look back and, if the bill becomes law, to take industrial relations back not to the 1970s but to the 1870s.

I hope that Labour, SNP and Liberal members, and other members in the chamber, will unite against the bill, but I also hope that we will do more than that. I recognise the calls from nationalists and others for the devolution of employment protection. That debate is worth having, not least because this vicious legislation makes the case stronger. Those who support that option have a job to do to achieve a consensus in favour of it, not just with the Opposition in the chamber but with those trades unions in Scotland that are unconvinced, and with trades unionists throughout Britain who seek to build solidarity against regressive law and not exclusion from it.

There is another question that those of us who will unite today in opposing the bill must consider: what will we do? I support those local government employers who have made clear that they will not pay the cost of removing check-off facilities—which is a privilege for which public sector unions actually pay the taxpayer—and nor should they be forced to abandon facility time, which is used to reduce conflict in the workplace. The Scottish Government must be clear that it will follow that lead in the national health service and across the Scottish public sector.

The Scottish Parliament must make it clear that the bill is not just bad law but a law that seeks to illegitimately interfere in the right of this place to make decisions about how public money is spent once it is in our control. To allow the law to be passed without the consent of this Parliament would be to fail to defend the power that we already have to take decisions in the best interests of those whom we represent.

For those reasons, we must demand the right to deny our consent to this desperate bill. I tell those members opposite, on the Conservative side of the chamber, that their amendment makes clear how uncomfortable they are rather than a case for supporting the bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You need to close, please.

Photo of Drew Smith Drew Smith Labour

If the Scottish Conservatives allow themselves to be dragged along with this policy, they will demonstrate themselves to be not optimists but a party whose weakness is there for all working people to see: exposed, and to be opposed.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

I welcome representatives from Kilmarnock and Loudoun Trades Union Council, along with friends and supporters of the trade union movement, to the public gallery this afternoon.

I do not often read the Tory party manifestos, but I had a look at what the manifesto said about the Tories’ proposed trade union reforms. There was not a single positive word anywhere about the role that trade unions can play in helping to build and create a successful economy, nor about the equally important role that unions carry out in representing the interests of ordinary working people. It is all negative language about tackling disruption and putting the unions in their place.

Even Mrs Thatcher’s 1979 manifesto managed to kick off with a positive comment about

“strong and responsible” trade unions playing

“a big part in ... economic recovery”.

We know that the Tories at that time did not mean a word of it, but even they managed to utter a positive word, even if those were only weasel words.

The 2015 Tory manifesto could not muster a single positive message about the relationship that the Tories want to develop with the trade unions, nor the vital role that unions have played in championing and protecting the interests of the ordinary working person. That is shameful.

The 2015 manifesto began by promising to

“protect you” and me

“from disruptive and undemocratic strike action”.

It then rambled on about removing

“nonsensical restrictions”,

which, if applied, would mean strike-breaking agency staff marching in to a place of work totally untrained and unprepared for the jobs they were taking from other people.

On top of that, the Tories stated that they were going to

“tackle the disproportionate impact of strikes” in the public sector. That is not a Scotland that I recognise. It paints a picture of gloom and conflict that I am sure the majority of people in Scotland do not recognise, and it seems that the Scottish Tories do not recognise it either. The one-page insert by their leader in the 2015 Conservative manifesto did not even mention trade unions, in Scotland or anywhere else for that matter. We are left to assume that Scottish Tories agree with their UK pals that there is a huge problem with the trade unions in Scotland that this disgraceful bill needs to fix. That is shameful too.

Scotland does not need this bill, and Scottish Tories should not be bending over to kiss Davie Cameron’s loof on the matter. They should be supporting trade union colleagues in Scotland and maintaining the good relations that we have established here.

Our industrial relations record in Scotland has been excellent in the seven years from 2007. There has been a huge drop of 84 per cent in the number of days lost because of industrial disputes, meaning that the number is now the lowest in the UK, and we have a solid record of working in partnership with our trade unions. The fair work convention was set up to advise the Scottish Government on how to improve and innovate in the workplace, how to develop industrial relations, and to advise on fair work and the living wage. We will see its framework and proposals next March.

The “Working Together Review” report, which was published last year, focused on the positive role for the trade unions in the workplace. Many of its recommendations for things like training, equalities and change management are now coming forward to implementation. We are promoting the real living wage through our public sector pay policy, and more employers are signing up to the scheme—the figure has now topped 380. New statutory guidance came into force just a few days ago that means that those who bid for public contracts will be expected to adopt fair work practices such as paying the living wage, not using zero-hours contracts and giving workers an active voice in the workplace.

Those are just a few examples of how Scotland is progressing with a positive agenda of engagement and co-operation with our trade unions. It therefore beggars belief that this anti-trade union bill from a Tory Government should be backed in Scotland by any political party. It should be totally rejected because it is divisive and, as Grahame Smith says, it is vindictive and it is not needed. It does nothing to foster good relations and will undermine the solid progress that has been made in recent years. Is it not time for the Tories in the Scottish Parliament to stand up for Scotland’s trade unions instead of standing up for Thatcher’s legacy of division and mistrust?

In May this year, the Scottish Government and the STUC demonstrated how co-operation should work by coming together on a number of issues. Concerns were shared about the impact on the poorest of more Tory austerity cuts and the further erosion of trade union and employment rights. There was a shared view that there should be full devolution of powers over the minimum wage, trade union and employment law. Common ground can always be found, but there needs to be a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect. That is what we have in Scotland and it is what the Scottish Tories seem hell-bent on throwing away.

There are real fears that this legislation is taking us in the wrong direction and that it will do nothing to promote the harmonious and respectful working relationship that Scotland’s employers have had with the trade unions for many years now. Councillor Hendry from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities warns us that the bill will endanger all of this good work and might even lead to more industrial unrest; and Pat Rafferty rightly says that no bill should criminalise people for defending their right to protect themselves from exploitation.

Scotland does not want or need this bill. It is an import from a Government we did not vote for, and it strikes at the heart of what we have valued in Scotland for generations—the right to work and the right to defend ourselves and fellow workers from exploitation. I am delighted to support the motion today condemning the bill, and I urge the whole Parliament to unite in rejecting it.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

As other members have done, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests as an associate member of the National Union of Journalists and a recipient of a small but very generous donation from the Fire Brigades Union at the last election.

During the past few years, Green parties throughout these islands have sought to broaden and deepen the relationship that we have enjoyed with the trade union movement. I was very pleased to welcome Grahame Smith and other trade union representatives at our most recent conference. We have found the door open to that approach of broadening our relationship, which is, I hope, a sign of the understanding that a political relationship between the trade union movement and the party-political landscape needs to be one of pluralism. The unions’ allies in the Scottish political landscape are so many and their opponents are so few.

I was therefore pleased to join representatives of other political parties—Iain Gray, Christina McKelvie, Willie Rennie and Colin Fox—who were speaking at the rally outside a few minutes ago. I am also delighted that so many of the trade union movement representatives have joined us in the gallery. However, we will need to join them, too.

The opportunity to have a debate about this pernicious bill and to vote against it, as it is clear that we will do in substantial numbers this evening, is really important. It is important to make that argument in the Parliament—for a legislative consent motion, to which I hope that we will say no—and for those at Westminster who are able and willing to challenge the bill to do so as well. However, we will also need to join our colleagues in the trade union movement outside the Parliament over the months and perhaps years to come if the bill does in fact become law.

Others have made the case very strongly for a strong trade union membership and there is evidence from around the world that, in countries that have a high level of trade union membership, an active trade union movement and trade unions that are able to represent the interests of their members articulately and powerfully in the political landscape, those things go hand in hand with a more equal society and a better, fairer and healthier workplace for the people whom those unions represent.

There is a case for many forms of democratic workplace but trade unions are a critical part of that picture and I think that that will always be the case. The right, ultimately, to withdraw labour, to go on strike and to take other forms of industrial action is critical to having people believe that there is a good reason for them to join a trade union. Trade unions need to be strong enough to be able to act at that last resort if people are to believe that there is a good reason to bother joining them. We all have a collective interest in seeing that happen in society.

Murdo Fraser tells us that when strike action is taken, everybody in society suffers. I know that I have been inconvenienced occasionally when there has been a strike in a service that I rely on. Of course people do not like that, but we would all like it a damn sight less if we were the kind of society that operated without people’s ability to take that last course of action when that final resort came. We would end up as a meaner, more selfish, more unequal and more exploitative society if that right was lost.

The bill is an attempt to strip away from people the right to act collectively, whether at the first resort or at the last, and whether in terms of the unions’ day-to-day functions in representing their members’ interests and the extra levels of complexity and bureaucracy that will be piled on top of that or in terms of the barriers that will be placed in front of them when they seek to exercise that last resort and take industrial action.

Industrial action is generally a last resort. Willie Rennie told us that the number of days lost to strike action has gone up a bit in the past few years and that is true, although it went down a bit in the few years before that. Before that, it went up a bit; before that, it went down a bit. Those yearly fluctuations have gone on whether there was a Labour Government or since the Tories were put into power in 2010. However, the long-term trend shows that other than in the 1970s and early 1980s, the level of strike action and the number of days lost to strike action in the UK have been consistently low in this country since the 1920s.

We should be proud of a legislative framework that allows people to take those actions of last resort and ensures that they have the power and the authority to do so without imposing the kind of absurd thresholds that the bill imposes on them. Taken together, the 40 and 50 per cent thresholds represent, in effect, an 80 per cent threshold that a union would have to demonstrate. That comes from a Government that was elected on the votes of less than a quarter of the electorate, and no one can tell us that the actions of that Government do not impact on everybody, whether they voted for it or not.

As well as the case for legislative action—for legislative consent being withheld here in Scotland and for challenges to the bill’s passage at Westminster—if the bill passes into law there will be a clear and, I would say, unanswerable case for a programme of non-compliance by the Scottish Government, giving leadership to other employers in the private and public sectors in Scotland and making sure that we have no willingness to support the legislation and that instead, we will stand with those unions that feel the need to take industrial action in defiance of it.

That is the programme that I hope this Government is willing to commit to and I will vote for the Government motion and the Labour amendment tonight.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

We are very tight for time today. I call Bob Doris, who has up to six minutes.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I begin by quoting a Conservative politician, although not a contemporary one but one from 1954. I refer, of course, to Winston Churchill, who, in the presence of Dwight Eisenhower at a White House luncheon, famously said:

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

I think that we can all agree with that. Unfortunately, another Conservative politician, Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, said during the second reading of the Trade Union Bill in the Westminster Parliament that this is a declaration of war on the trade union movement. That sums up precisely what the bill at Westminster is all about. It is designed to provoke industrial discord and division. It is designed to provoke our trade unions and I suspect that the aim is to go even further than the dreadful details that are in the current bill.

It is a declaration of war that effectively places workers and their union representatives in a straitjacket by denying them the ability to fight back. The irony is that Scotland’s trade unions—our workers’ representatives—want to talk. They want jaw-jaw and not war-war, but the bill does not even allow them the basic tools to defend themselves. The UK Government has missed the fact that Scotland is engaged in a process of embracing our trade union movement and sees the unions as key partners and stakeholders in the modern society that we all want to build. As I think Willie Coffey said, the UK Tories are dragging this country back to the worst excesses of Thatcherism and even further beyond that.

I will pick just one example of the straitjacket that the bill will place on our workers’ representatives, which is the cap on facility time and the restrictions around that time off to do union business. I will concentrate on the healthcare aspects. The briefing from the Royal College of Nursing says that it is in a unique position to comment on the bill, as it has the right to strike but has never actually authorised strike action. It is not a radical union; it is a progressive union.

The briefing states:

“The RCN is calling for provisions in the Bill which enable the Minister”— not the Scottish ministers—

“to cap facility time to be rejected”.

It continues:

“Evidence shows that the current arrangements for union facility time are working well and the RCN believes that in the interests of patient care and staff welfare they should not be capped.”

It goes on to say:

“Continued pay restraint coupled with the attack on workplace democracy contained within the Trade Union Bill will do nothing to improve industrial relations.”

The matter is absolutely a devolved one. The RCN also says:

“We believe that this Bill poses a profound risk to productivity, morale and the delivery of safe patient care in the NHS.”

This is a devolved matter to its bones. We all know it and, as far as I am concerned, it is about time that the Conservatives faced up to that and gave the Scottish Parliament the chance to formally vote against it and kill the bill.

I think that the Tories are targeting the NHS. We have already seen that the UK policy coming from London—from Jeremy Hunt and others—is to gradually pick away at and dismantle the NHS. The BMA, which has made a useful contribution to the debate, has raised significant issues regarding time off for union duties and facility time. It says that it is “deeply concerned” that the bill could be used

“to restrict the ability of unions to represent their members on a range of issues, such as resolving workplace disputes, collective bargaining and improving workplace practices.”

The NHS is just one vital public sector body that will be undermined at devolved level if the bill goes through at UK level.

I should at the start have declared an interest as an on-going member of the Educational Institute of Scotland, as I was formerly a teacher. I remember that, in 2001, there was a significant debate in the EIS and other organisations in relation to the McCrone agreement, which was eventually signed. There is still debate on that. The teachers who are present will remember that there were significant arguments, but the unions approached that from a well-informed position. Representatives had time off to discuss matters and reach informed positions, and to inform their members so that they could decide whether they wished to sign the McCrone agreement. The bill would deny unions the opportunity to make an informed decision on many occasions.

I will say a little about City Building, which is a business in the region that I represent and provides an example of workers’ representatives being very much involved progressively in helping in the delivery of a service. In the past 10 years, they have helped through their work to raise £50 million for Glasgow; they are actively engaged in supporting more than 400 apprentices at City Building; and they are involved with Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries and employees who otherwise might not have employment elsewhere. They are progressive and they are part of the agenda to take Scotland forward. They are not the enemy; they are who we work in partnership with.

From what I can see, the UK Government is promoting in-work poverty by accelerating tax credit cuts. It is accelerating out-of-work poverty by conditionality and sanctions on benefits, and it is now seeking to deny the basic human right to withdraw one’s labour and do something about it when a right-wing Tory Government is attacking the very basis on which society is founded. That is the right to withdraw one’s labour for the sake of a better life for one’s self, one’s family and one’s community. We have to kill the bill.

Photo of Cara Hilton Cara Hilton Labour

As a trade unionist and a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and of Unite, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. I thank the many constituents who have contacted me on the issue, the thousands who have signed my local petition to say no to the Trade Union Bill and the many trade unionists who have come along today to lobby MSPs and to listen to the debate, including members of Fife trades council.

The Tory Trade Union Bill is not just an attack on trade unions, and it is not just an attack on trade unionists and trade union members. The Tory bill is an attack on the rights of every worker in Scotland and across the United Kingdom and it is a direct threat to our rights at work—rights that trade unions have fought for and secured only through many decades of struggle; rights that we often take for granted, such as rest breaks and time off at the weekend, maternity leave and sick leave, equal pay and health and safety; and rights secured for workers today by the actions and solidarity of the generations before us.

Every trade unionist knows that the bigger the trade union movement, the better its chance to protect workers’ rights. Across the UK, more than 6 million people are members of trade unions, making the movement the largest democratic organisation in the UK. Trade unions speak up for their members on maternity rights, sick pay, holiday pay, flexible working, health and safety, pensions and wages. Trade unions challenge discrimination, harassment, and bullying and inequality, in and out of the workplace. Trade unions campaign for equality, fairness and justice, at home and abroad. Strength in numbers allows unions to represent members individually at work if they have a problem, to represent members collectively to secure improvements to terms and conditions, and to campaign for a better, fairer society and for an economy that is run in the interests of working people.

That is exactly why David Cameron wants to strike right at the heart of the trade union movement. The Trade Union Bill sends out a green light to bad employers to behave even worse, by eroding the rights and, most important, the power of working people in Scotland and across the UK.

The bill would place extreme and severe restrictions on the right to strike, making it legal for employers to use agency workers to replace striking workers, outlawing nearly half of strikes, and making already very demanding rules even more complicated. It would undermine trade unions’ abilities to represent and protect their members at work by restricting facility time for reps, tying union branches up in red tape and stopping the easy collection of union dues. It would silence many trade union campaigns, stopping unions campaigning against Tory austerity and making it all the easier for the Tories to impose their cuts.

As with the Tories’ attack on welfare, which hit women worst, women workers will be most affected by that Tory assault. Trades Union Congress research has revealed that three quarters of the union members affected by the most oppressive proposals are women, who are most likely to be working in our public services. For those women workers, their leverage to prevent unequal pay and discrimination and to protect maternity and other rights will be dramatically reduced by the bill.

The bill is a direct attack on workers across the UK and we must all unite to resist it. Scottish Labour will stand shoulder to shoulder with the trade union movement. We will oppose the bill and fight it every step of the way. Labour-led councils have led the way in saying that they will refuse to co-operate with the Trade Union Bill, and I hope that every Scottish council will say the same. We must use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to resist the bill in every way we can. I am pleased that the cabinet secretary is pursuing a legislative consent motion, and I hope that that will be introduced at the earliest possible opportunity.

We must resist the bill across the UK, too. I am pleased that Labour, SNP and Lib Dem MPs will unite against the bill in Westminster later this week, because trade unionism is, above all, about solidarity. One of the most popular trade union slogans is, “The workers united will never be defeated,” and that slogan is central to trade unionism. Breaking the bond that a worker in Dunfermline shares with a worker in Doncaster or Derby strikes at the very heart of the trade union movement, where an injury to one is an injury to all.

As Jeremy Corbyn stated in his letter to the First Minister last week,

“by showing that this Bill can’t be enforced in either Scotland or Wales, we will expose it as legislation that is ill conceived, poorly drafted and unfit for purpose”.

We have already seen the pressure on the UK Government starting to pay off, with the dropping of the plan to ban unions from publicising protests and pickets on social media. If the Scottish Government makes it clear to Westminster that we will not comply with the bill, that will add to the growing pressure across the UK.

The bill must be stopped. It is unfair, it is unnecessary and it is undemocratic. It is an ideological attack on trade unionism. The bill is about shifting more power directly into the hands of employers, making it virtually impossible for workers to take strike action, and leaving working people with little or no power to prevent employers from imposing cuts in pay and conditions or to jobs and pensions.

The bill flies in the face of the partnership approach that has been embraced by many trade unions and employers, not just in Scotland but across the UK, promoting fairness at work through dialogue rather than confrontation.

The bill is

“an outdated response to the challenges of the modern workplace”.

Those are not my words, but the words of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

We must fight the bill every step of the way—in our council chambers, in Holyrood and at Westminster—and we must use the powers that we have to resist the bill should the Tories succeed in forcing it through.

In 2015, when millions of people are employed on zero-hours contracts, when women continue to be paid less for doing the same jobs as men, when the Tory Government deems it acceptable for younger workers to be paid less than the going rate for the job, when so many people continue to be denied a living wage and when 20,000 workers die every year due to accidents at work, strong trade unions are more important than ever.

Trade union values are more important now than they have ever been. Today, I hope that we will unite and send a clear message from the Scottish Parliament to David Cameron and his Tory Government. We reject his plans to attack our rights at work. We reject his plans to undermine the solidarity and unity on which trade unionism depends. We will refuse to implement this bill in Scotland where we can. We will work alongside the trade union movement throughout the UK to stop this vicious attack on our rights at work and to say no to the Trade Union Bill.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

As a member who represents Clydebank, a town that is rich in trade union history, it is a pleasure to be speaking in the debate. However, like many of my colleagues, I just wish that I was doing so in more positive circumstances.

Clydebank has a place in history when it comes to unions. Who could forget the efforts of Jimmy Reid and his fellow workmates in the 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in? That organisation by the workers saw the Tory Heath Government relenting and keeping two of the yards open. Alas, the shipyard at Clydebank was sold. However, the example that was set by Jimmy Reid and the workers of UCS highlighted the effectiveness of trade unions in organising their workforce, gaining public support and campaigning towards a positive outcome. The Conservatives clearly feel threatened by the examples of history. If Jimmy Reid were alive today, he would be campaigning on the steps of Westminster against the bill. However, he would not be surprised by the contempt that the Conservative Government is showing for trade unions.

The bill is an attack on workers and will make it considerably more difficult for employees to have their voice heard. The bill is also an attack on the fundamental right of employees to withdraw their labour—a right that is enshrined in a range of international conventions.

However, the bill is not only bad for trade unionists and workers, it is bad for business. Most folks here know that I own a family business, which my son now runs. We have close to 50 workers, and we regard them as gold dust. Moreover, when we work hand-in-hand with workers and give them ownership of decisions on a day-to-day basis, engage with them more as partners than employees and engage with them in order to work out solutions to problems together, it is the workforce that gets us out of problems when hard times come—and, by God, hard times will come.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Gil Paterson is making some really good points. However, in order to show us a great example, could he tell us which union is recognised in that workplace?

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

No union has ever approached me. If they approach me, they will be welcome. I run something closer to a co-operative than a business. That is only possible if we work with and trust people as equals. The bill is therefore madness, and will cause division where none exists.

In countries that are high-wage economies and which, coincidentally, have worker participation at management and boardroom level, companies and the country as a whole are the most successful on almost every measure. They have better health and safety records, better conditions for employees and fewer days lost to absence. Why not copy their success? Why cause conflict? It makes no sense on a business basis, never mind on a trade union basis. Essentially, this attack on unions is removing mechanisms of protection that workers still have against the Tories’ wider programme to restrict human rights, including changes relating to unfair dismissal and restrictions on access to workforce justice.

The SNP and the Scottish Government have consistently shown their support for employees’ rights and the work of trade unions—so much so that the Scottish Government, as part of its economic strategy, established the fair work convention to provide it with independent advice on matters relating to innovative and productive work places, industrial relations, fair work and the real living wage.

It is worth saying again that Scotland’s commitment to the effective workplace, as described, has ensured that the number of days lost to industrial disputes decreased by 84 per cent between 2007 and 2014 and is the lowest of all of the UK nations. I wonder why. Unfortunately, the proposals that are set out in the Trade Union Bill would jeopardise that positive record and undermine the progress that has been made through the positive partnership that the Scottish Government has built up with the unions over a number of years. Again, I suspect that the Tories wish for that to happen.

The SNP and the Scottish Government consider trade unions and the workforce to be key social partners and not opponents. We want that to remain the case: so, in my view, would any decent business. Therefore I ask Parliament to support the Government’s motion.

Photo of John Pentland John Pentland Labour

The establishment of the rights of working people and improvements in their working conditions have been the result of centuries of struggle against oppression. The biggest advances in workers’ rights have always been achieved as a result of working people organising, through trade unions and their precursors, and as a result of the engagement of the labour movement in parliamentary action. It is worth reminding ourselves of those advances, which include better pay, the five-day week, shorter working days, parental leave, workplace pensions, health and safety improvements, sickness benefits, paid holidays, and better housing, education and health services.

Such advances have almost always been resisted at some stage by the Tories, by their friends whose wealth is derived from the sweat and toil of working people and, not least, by their friends in the media. If it was down to them, we would still have child labour, outrageous gender inequality with women getting the sack because they got married or became pregnant, no minimum or living wage, no security of employment, no redundancy schemes and no laws about unfair dismissal or a right to organise.

I am not saying that the Tories have never supported improvements; it is just that when they do, they have generally already lost the argument and are trying to save face and credibility with a façade of caring about workers’ rights. With the Trade Union Bill—and with the Tories having lost their Liberal chains—that façade has well and truly slipped.

Leading human rights groups have called the bill

“a major attack on civil liberties”,

but it is one that Margaret Thatcher would probably have been proud of. We are, of course, still suffering from her legacy many years on, particularly in areas such as Motherwell and Wishaw, where the exemplary organisation of working people in the steel industry was seen as a threat that had to be countered, as were the miners, by hatchet man Ian MacGregor.

Put simply, the money grabbers and free-marketeers regard trade unions as an obstacle to free markets and profits—in other words, to their ability to make as much money as possible without being obstructed by workers who dare to demand safe working conditions and a fair share of the fruits of their labour in order to provide a decent life for themselves and their families.

The Trade Union Bill as currently drafted will take us back to the dark ages. It will make it much harder for workers to stand up to employers and assert their rights. Among the provisions are the extraordinary powers that will be given to the certification officer—the Government regulator for trade unions and employers associations. As TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said, the certification officer will become “investigator, judge and jury” with trade unions being made to foot the bill—not to mention the £20,000 fine for crimes such as not wearing armbands on picket lines.

Even some Tories think that the bill is over the top. Tory MP David Davis has compared some of it to what happened in Spain under Franco’s fascism, such as the requirement for pickets to give their names to the police force.

Business associations are worried that it will backfire on them, having warned that it could have “unintended consequences”. Employment agencies oppose provisions that will allow temps to be used as scabs. That, of course, will be less likely to happen when it is required that 50 per cent of the membership must vote in a ballot to strike, while the means of voting are also heavily restricted.

I am happy to see that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has voiced its opposition. Labour councils including North Lanarkshire Council are saying that they will not comply with the legislation. It has been joined by North Ayrshire Council, which has said that it will defend and support check-off arrangements as part of its collective and contractual arrangements with unions, and that it will not use agency staff during industrial action. We need that attitude to prevail right across the public sector, so I hope that the First Minister will follow her mother’s lead and ensure that all public bodies do likewise, with the Scottish Parliament refusing to grant the bill legislative consent.

The Trade Union Bill seeks to turn back the clock on workers’ rights, but the truth is that there are still too many sectors in which they have barely entered the 20th century, let alone the 21st century. Rather than diluting workers’ rights, we should be adding to them.

My granddaughter recently applied for a part-time job with a local hotel. She was interviewed and clearly met its requirements. Then came the crunch: if she wanted the job, she would have to come in for a trial period during which she would have to work for nothing. She responded as we would expect. That shows that if employers think that they can get away with it, they will exploit their workforce. Trade unions are weak in the hospitality sector, so that is what happens.

We need stronger, not weaker, trade unions. We need stronger, not weaker, workers’ rights. We need better health and safety, action on blacklisting, action on zero-hours contracts, and people to be paid the living wage. What we do not need is this Trade Union Bill.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

In any modern democratic society, we need balance among different groups. That is as true of the relationship between employers and employees as it is of those between other groups.

Some people would say that there have been periods in my lifetime in which employees have had too much control and managers have been unable to manage. If that has happened, it has been very much the exception, rather than the rule. Even without the bill, we currently see a great imbalance in favour of owners, shareholders, employers and management at the expense of employees—especially at the expense of poorly paid employees.

I do not see the debate and the bill as isolated incidents. They come against a background of a great divide in our society. The wealthy get more and more while poorer people, whether or not they work, get less and less.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I do not want to be divisive, today of all days, but will Mr Mason elaborate on his point that there was an imbalance in favour of working people? When did that happen?

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

There was a time—certainly when I was younger—when some people at least claimed that. My point was merely that. My main point is that there needs to be a balance between employees, employers, management, shareholders and so on, but there is not a balance at the moment. We are a hugely imbalanced society. Society was more balanced in the past, and I certainly hope that it will be more balanced in the future.

The proposed legislation is yet another example of the strong getting stronger at the expense of the weak. I did not initially plan to speak in the debate, but as I have looked more into the proposals, it has become clear that the bill will harm workers’ rights. I believe that it will damage the economy as a whole in Scotland.

The proposals that are outlined in the bill are not, as I see them, intended to make the process of striking more democratic or transparent. Instead, the bill is purely an ideological attack on workers’ rights to collective organisation and bargaining. It will lead to a worse imbalance of power in the workplace and it will harm the relationship between employees and employers at a time when that relationship is a key to our future prosperity. I think that the cabinet secretary mentioned that other countries seem to have achieved that balance and that relationship much better.

Trade unions perform a number of roles in a society like ours—for example, in promoting health and safety, as the Conservative amendment correctly states. As part of my casework for constituents, a number of constituents come to me with workplace problems. My first questions to them are, “What union are you a member of?” and “What is its position and what is it doing about the problem?” Sadly, fewer employees seem to be members of trade unions these days. That can cause a real problem when an issue arises at work.

Not every union member will be happy with the line that is taken by their union representatives or their leadership in every single case, of course, but I believe that both management and employees benefit when there is a clear forum for dialogue and it is clear who is representing whom. That is what trade unions do. Unions provide a vital role in ensuring that the voice of the employees is heard alongside the voice of their employers. However, the bill would make it much more difficult for trade unions to provide their members with the organisation and support that they need.

Robust unions also help to reduce levels of inequality in society. We must therefore, if we are serious about making our country a fairer place, welcome the role that unions play.

A recent report that was written by the New Economics Foundation independent think tank and the University of Greenwich entitled “Working for the economy: The economic case for trade unions” highlights the important contribution that unions play in the economy. It estimates that up to £27.2 billion has been lost due to the decline in wages as a share of national income by almost 10 per cent between 1975 and 2014. It found that unions have a positive impact on the economy as a whole due to their work in ensuring that employees are paid fairly for their work, which obviously increases demand in the whole economy. I whole-heartedly agree with that. In the absence of the power at Holyrood to set a minimum wage, the unions must be free to pursue the best deal for their members. In the long run, that will benefit employers, as well.

One of the most concerning aspects of the bill for most unions is the imposition of arbitrary ballot thresholds for strike action. The right to strike should be respected in a free and democratic country. Many progressive policies that we have today, such as the five-day week and the minimum wage, were earned through industrial action. Some unions have noted that the attack on the right to strike may well lead to longer and more drawn-out action, as trade unions are forced to ensure that they will meet the threshold so that the action is legitimate. All in all, that looks like a recipe for poorer industrial relations rather than a recipe for better ones.

As has been mentioned, many of us politicians, including some Conservatives, would not have been elected on the thresholds that are being proposed for trade union ballots. I was elected on a 37 per cent turnout. I assume that, to Conservative thinking, there should be no MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, because the turnout was so low.

The UK is one of most unequal countries in the world, and the restrictions that are proposed in the Trade Union Bill will, in all likelihood, only exacerbate the problems that we face. Once again, we find ourselves having to react to misguided laws that are being forced on us by an out-of-touch party that is not representative of the people of Scotland.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Members might be wondering what the point of trade unions is. After all, if Murdo Fraser can say that they are “partners in progress”, we could reasonably say, “The job’s done, boys and girls—just toddle off home. We’re all part of the big society; we’re all one nation Tories. We don’t need these out-dated, old-fashioned concepts; we’re all ‘partners in progress’”. Yet, if we look at what is happening not just in this country but around the world, members might reflect that there is a need for trade union organisations. When ordinary men and women are faced with injustice, oppression, danger and living standards that leave them in poverty, we know that they need to do something.

When we look at some of the tragic accidents in countries such as in Bangladesh and India, and at the conditions that workers in countries such as the Philippines or Indonesia are often in, we see that they are often producing products for companies that are located in this country, whose directors are often members of the Conservative Party, who are supporters of hedge funds and who make a fantastic living out of those products. Members will wonder why it is that, if we are all “partners in progress”, individuals in those countries are left so vulnerable and open to exploitation.

We can then reflect on this country. It was not so long ago when many workers in this country had to suffer and endure the similar conditions of unsafe working practices, poor pay and living in a society where there were no additional benefits. In this country, because workers organised, it was through the collective strength of the trade unions that workers were able to ensure that, when they went to work in the morning, they were relatively safe at work. It was through that collective organisation that there was a political expression that said, “You know something? As well as going to work to earn our sustenance, we actually want to make sure we have a decent house to live in, we want an education for our children, we want a health service that we can fall back on when we are ill, and we want pensions in our retirement.” The trade unions in this country organised in the workplace and said, “We need a political expression for our activities.”

To some extent, the job has been done. Much of what I accept as normal in my life has come about because of the organisation, determination and struggle of men and women over many generations. Unfortunately, we will take for granted and at our peril what we have achieved. I cannot say that the sons and daughters and the grandsons and granddaughters of many of my constituents have the same security that I had during my working life. They are now more vulnerable than ever before to low pay and to exploitation.

In some industries, we see trade unions that are weak and underrepresented. We can therefore see what the Conservative Government is trying to do: to make the exploitation and the pay and conditions that we see in many fast food outlets or other such organisations the norm in order to make Britain and Scotland competitive in the world.

That is why the Conservatives want to make life difficult for unions such as the Communication Workers Union, which organises postal workers and many communication workers in call centres across the country, when the union says that there is a problem with the weight that its members are asked to carry on their day-to-day deliveries, or that there is a problem with the shifts that its members are asked to work. That is why unions are so important in protecting the health, not just the pay, of their workers.

That is why unions such as USDAW do not just represent shop workers in the workplace. That is why they believe that they have to fight on the political front as well and why they wage campaigns such as the one that USDAW is running just now—freedom from fear—in which it states that it wants protection for its members who are attacked for doing the job that the Scottish Government asked them to do in refusing to sell alcohol to people.

That is why, quite rightly, trade unions have an expectation that there should be no double standards—that we do not hear warm words of support today about the right of trade unions to support their members and then turn our backs on them when we can do something to help in their moment of need.

I am glad that there is strong level of solidarity and support against the Trade Union Bill today, but we all need to look to ourselves to make sure that we put into practice what the trade unions are struggling for in their workplaces day in and day out. We need to make sure that the bill is put into the bin of history.


Hugh Henry says : we want pensions in our retirement. Yes, and the Unions should be voicing their concern about the Frozen Pension issue because it affects their members by denying them any state pension uprating should they retire to a wrong country.

Submitted by George Morley

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I greet and welcome the many members of trade unions who are in the public gallery today.

Linda Fabiani said in her contribution that we are where we are and we have to get on with it. Murdo Fraser told us in his contribution that, as far as the Tories are concerned, the Scottish Parliament has no mandate on the Trade Union Bill. I hope that Murdo Fraser and others have been listening to the contributions from all the other parties during the debate. He will realise that the Scottish Parliament does indeed have a very big mandate on the bill. I will come back to that later in my contribution.

I was a member of the USDAW trade union—there seem to be a number of its members here—and I was also a shop steward. I took great pleasure in representing my members. We did not win everything that we set out to do, but we certainly won a number of cases. It was very much a collective contribution from all our members.

Of course, trade unions represent their members when they go on strike and so on, but I want to talk about the bigger picture of what trade unions do. When I was a union member and shop steward I learned that trade unions put people through college and send representatives into schools. The trade union movement is fantastic, and we should not forget that.

I am deeply worried by the Trade Union Bill, because it makes me wonder where the Tories will stop. We have talked about collection of union membership moneys. I remember trade unions helping people with their fees for higher national diplomas and higher national certificates. I remember the trades council meetings that I used to attend and the many friends that I made and still have in trades councils. To me, it was a huge strength of the trade union movement that the union was not just there on the shop floor but involved in educating the workers. It would be deeply regrettable if the Tories went down the road of restricting such activity.

I thank Linda Fabiani for talking about the STUC, and I say for the benefit of Murdo Fraser and the Tories that I hope that they check the Official Report of her speech, because some of the things that Murdo Fraser said in his opening speech do not stand up. The STUC repeatedly said that it was in favour of devolution of employment law in its submissions to the Smith commission. It specifically called for

“The devolution of employment law, health and safety, trade union law and the minimum wage”.

It would be wise if Murdo Fraser checked what the STUC actually said.

We also know that the First Minister and the STUC had a meeting, and it was highlighted that the Scottish Government and the STUC share the view that the UK Government should, as a priority, agree to the full devolution of powers over employment law. I should also mention the memorandum of understanding between the Scottish Government and the STUC. I would have hoped that everyone here would agree that that is the way forward, instead of the retrograde steps that are being forced upon trade unions by the Tory Government at Westminster—a Government that, we should remember, does not have a mandate from the people of Scotland.

I thank the cabinet secretary for what she said in her opening remarks about Scotland being excluded from the bill and a legislative consent memorandum being brought to this Parliament to ensure that it has the power to vote against the bill. As Dave Moxham said earlier at the trade union rally outside the Parliament, we in Scotland could show the way. I am pleased that Drew Smith, in his speech, recognised that we in the Scottish Parliament must work together not only to defeat the bill but to give all our workers a better future. We work best by working together.

Trade unions are far too important to be used as a political football. We represent the workers out there and we have a right to put forward the best interests of the trade unions. We need to make sure that the bill does not go through and that the Scottish Parliament has the powers to defeat it.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I rise to support the amendment in the name of my colleague Iain Gray, but first I declare an interest as a trade union member since 1976, a former shop steward and a member of the GMB union since 1990.

Having listened carefully to Murdo Fraser’s speech, which consisted mainly of him telling the Parliament how reasonable it was for the Conservative Government to introduce its Trade Union Bill, and having considered the Conservative amendment, which is couched in moderate terms, the casual observer might be forgiven for wondering why Scottish Labour and all the other parties in the Parliament are making such a fuss.

Here is why. In truth, the provisions in the Conservative Government’s bill undermine

“workers’ rights to representation and their right to express an opinion through industrial action which is taken as a last resort.”

Those are not the words of the STUC or the TUC; it is the considered opinion of the British Medical Association, which is a politically neutral, professional association and trade union that represents around 16,000 members in Scotland. It does not have a political fund and is not affiliated to any political party, or to the TUC or the STUC for that matter. However, the criticisms of the bill that are made by the BMA mirror in many respects the fundamental concerns that have been raised by trade unions that are affiliated to the TUC and STUC.

Let us take, for example, the provisions that seek to introduce ballot thresholds, which are in clauses 2 and 3 of the bill. Despite the Tory Government’s claims that the measures are not an attempt to ban industrial action, the purpose of the double threshold is clearly to make it more difficult for unions to organise industrial action. As we have heard, clause 2 would require a minimum threshold of a 50 per cent turnout in all industrial action ballots. Clause 3 goes further, introducing an additional barrier that would mean that 40 per cent of the eligible membership would have to be in favour of action in specified public services before any action would be legal.

That would mean that a trade union would need 50 per cent of members to take part in a ballot and 80 per cent of that number to vote in favour of industrial action before it would be legal. How many Tory MPs could pass that test? The BMA is right when it says that the ballot thresholds in the bill are

“arbitrary, unnecessary and inappropriate” and that introducing such a threshold for each individual instance

“undermines workers’ fundamental right to strike”.

The provisions in the bill follow the pattern that is set by clauses 2 and 3. They are ideologically motivated, blatantly partial and essentially vindictive. The attempt to restrict facility time is another case in point. Unions are concerned that the measures would restrict their representatives’ ability to represent their members and that, as the RCN has stated—it is another predictably non-political organisation—they

“seek to solve a problem that does not exist”.

We all want to see modern, constructive industrial relations regimes in which there is a proper balance between the interests of the employed and those of the employer. However, the bill, which is clearly weighted against trade unions and their members, will instead stoke up grievance and foment unnecessary dispute. It is, in short, a bad bill.

Despite Murdo Fraser’s nuanced but essentially disingenuous amendment, the bill’s provisions form a less than subtle attempt to smash the trade union movement and finish off Mrs Thatcher’s work. It is for that reason that we must use all the democratic means at our disposal to kill this anti-trade union bill stone dead. Scottish Labour will not stand by and allow working people’s hard-won rights to be swept aside by privileged, smug old Etonians.

I am proud that Labour-led local authorities and others have pledged not to co-operate with attacks on facility time or check-off and that they have committed to oppose the use of untrained agency workers to break strikes. I applaud my colleagues at Westminster and in Cardiff who have taken a principled position against this unjust legislation. I also note the strength of the minister’s opposition to the bill and her attempts to exempt Scotland from its provisions, which are welcome. I hope that an LCM can be worked on and brought forward.

Free democratic trade unions have been a civilising force in society. They are responsible for equal pay legislation, maternity rights, health and safety at work, holiday pay, paternity rights, the minimum wage, the living wage and so much else that constitutes progress in the workplace. The Tory Trade Union Bill is a vindictive hotchpotch that attempts to take us back to the early years of the previous century. It must be defeated by positive, concerted political action, so let us all unite with our constituents and ensure its failure.

Photo of Chic Brodie Chic Brodie Scottish National Party

It is paradoxical that we are considering limited further powers for the Scottish Government but are entertaining in this debate a proposed taking of free democratic powers from our workforces and trade unions. I am delighted to be taking part in the debate, and I do so wearing a tie that was given to me by the GMB, which I am proud to wear. I say to some that they should never judge a book by its cover.

When oh when will the UK Tory Government lay aside its tribalism and recognise that there could be benefits for all—financial benefits, the uprating of skills and talents, the securing of fair work practices and so on? Those things will be achieved only when the Government’s tribally driven conflict is laid aside and it applies itself to developing good working relationships, which the bill as proposed will tear apart.

The facts provide me with a conundrum. In the workplace, in the private and public sectors alike, labour and capital—those who own revenue and are responsible for its disbursement—should and must be partners working together. Yet, it is thought to be okay for the owners of capital to move money at a whim and to withdraw that which they own from any exercise or complex. If it is all right for the owners of capital to withdraw it or distribute it at will, so must it be for the workforce and their labour. However, we do not want that. Rather, with a proper understanding and acceptance of the need for practically trained and beneficial management and strong employee representatives in the workplace, we can achieve a much better arrangement. In the current circumstances and with that objective in mind, the bill is shown to be a nonsense and unnecessary.

If the bill is passed, we will continue to have conflict or the potential for it. That is why it is a disgrace and it must be killed. If it is not, Scotland should certainly be excluded from the bill’s provisions and given the opportunity, in consideration of our known propensity for community empowerment, to extend that to the workplace through the participation of the trade unions in decision making, thereby securing consistency of practice and fairness across the sectors.

In the past few years in Scotland, there has been a closer relationship and more discussion with trade unions nationally and locally, which has resulted in fewer days of industrial action compared with the rest of the UK. In the past seven years, the number of disputes has decreased by 84 per cent, and I believe that improved communication, problem resolution and personal relationships, along with agreed joint positive actions, have contributed to that.

The Trade Union Bill flies in the face of our continuing that progress and creating progressive workplace practices, meaningful workforce and union engagement, and innovation, and it therefore flies in the face of increasing productivity and enhanced employee commitment and compensation. What we need is good management and leadership, and agreement of people and practices across the workplace. I am talking about practices that are far from understood at Eton, at Oxford or in the Bullingdon club. Scotland should be allowed to continue to be ahead of the curve on this issue.

The bill will do nothing to cement good relations, and it will do nothing for fairness and democracy. For example, in setting a requirement that in certain essential public services 40 per cent of those who are entitled to vote must be in favour of industrial action, the Tory Government forgets that it is creating welfare mayhem on the back of public support of less than 40 per cent. It is interested in conflict, not partnership, and industrial aggression, not peace. That is the Tory Government’s byword for industrial relations. Making unlawful picketing a potential criminal offence is intimidatory; increasing the notice period that is required prior to industrial action is confrontational; and the prescribing of detail that must be included on ballot papers is absolutely unnecessary.

I repeat that the bill is a symbol of tribalism and a totem of conflict and, as such, it negates the positivity and cohesion that there can and should be in industrial relations. In paragraph 2 of the explanatory notes, the bill is described as

“legislation to reform trade unions”— it does not do that—

“and to protect essential public services against strikes.”

Given the way in which it is drafted, it will not do that, either.

The bill is also said to allow the UK Government to pursue its

“ambition to become the most prosperous major economy in the world by 2030.”

The UK Government must be daft: as it is conceived, the bill will have the very opposite effect. That goal will be achieved only through collaboration, a redrawing of a meaningful strategy for employee relations and participation in decision making. It is best that responsibility for this area be moved to Scotland so that we can get on with that job.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We come to the closing speeches.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

I will start by reiterating some of the comments that my colleague Murdo Fraser made and, indeed, the wording of our amendment. Patricia Ferguson described it as disingenuous, but I take issue with that quite strongly. We thought carefully about what amendment we would lodge. We reflected on the contents of the bill and on previous discussions and writings by Murdo Fraser on the subject of trade unions, so our amendment says exactly what we feel about the valuable role that trade unions have played in the past and that I believe they will continue to play in the future.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

In a moment.

As we have heard, trade unions have played a very important role in the promotion of rights. They have also played an important role in health and safety. Hugh Henry asked whether that job was done and he concluded, quite rightly, that it was not. There are still far too many people who are intimidated, injured or, indeed, killed at work, and trade unions have a critical role to play in addressing that in the future.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I thank Mr Brown for giving way, but he has made my point about his party’s amendment being disingenuous, because it is not possible to say those really good things about trade unions, all of which are true, and at the same time be part of a party that is trying to pass legislation that will completely and utterly neuter them.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

I think that there was a bit of hyperbole there. It is perfectly plausible to believe in the strength of trade unions and to promote the excellent work that they have done and will continue to do, and also to believe that many parts of the bill will improve the balance between employers, employees, trade unions and the general public.

To say that we are trying to neuter trade unions is hyperbole that may fit well in the debate and go down well in a public meeting, but I certainly do not believe that it is true. Iain Gray said that the bill is trying to disable and destroy the trade union movement, but I do not accept for a second that that is what the bill is trying to do. It would be awful if the bill ended up doing that because, as I said in my opening remarks, the trade unions have a critical and key role to play.

What has driven the bill? We have heard quite a lot of hyperbole during the debate and things that I think are simply not true, such as that the bill will undermine the right to family life and make it more difficult to become a member of a trade union, but it does not talk about that at all. Willie Rennie said that the bill is purely about beating the Labour Party and Chic Brodie said that the bill is a totem of conflict, but I do not think that those claims are true at all.

Some legitimate concerns have been put forward quite effectively by a number of unions and by a number of members, at least in parts of their speeches today. That approach will bear far better fruit and we will end up with a bill that is better and stronger than the one that we have today. Like any bill, it is not perfect and has clauses that could be improved. The Government has made it clear that it is open to amendments; indeed, it has suggested one or two already.

What is driving the bill is that, as a number of people have commented, we have to balance carefully the interests of not just employers, employees and trade unions, but a group that has barely merited a mention in the debate. Barely any speaker has mentioned the general public. That is the group that I think is behind the bill, because it is the general public that ultimately bears a large part of the brunt of an industrial dispute. I suspect that that is not what the unions or employers want, but whether it involves an operation being cancelled, trying to get different childcare arrangements or being unable to legitimately get into work or get home from work, the public do bear the brunt. They are another factor that needs to be taken into account when producing the legislation, but they have not featured heavily in the debate.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Does the member recognise that ordinary trade unionists are in fact members of the public? They are ordinary working people trying to do their best and it is reasonable that their voice should be heard in the workplace.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

Yes, of course trade union members are members of the public, but not every member of the public is a member of a trade union and not every member of the public has the ability to cast a vote in a trade union ballot on whether to take industrial action. Many members of the public have no say whatsoever in the process—none whatsoever—but ultimately bear a large part of the brunt of any industrial action that takes place. That is what I think is driving the bill.

We have heard a lot about the important work of trade unions, almost all of which, I have to say, I agreed with entirely. I accept, too, that the bill is not perfect and that amendments will be required. However, surely on some of the substantive issues, very few of which we got to in the debate, even those who oppose the bill as a whole would accept some of the arguments—for example, that the mandate from a ballot for industrial action should expire after four months. People might disagree strongly on whether it ought to be four months and they are quite entitled to say so, but does everyone in the chamber outside of my own party genuinely believe that the mandate should go on in perpetuity, whether the action takes place a year, two years or even three years after a ballot? Surely the principle of having in legislation some form of end-point—whether people agree on four months is another matter—can be discussed and debated.

Would it really be so wrong that two weeks’ notice has to be given so that people are better prepared for the outcome of industrial action? Again, we can disagree about that. Would it really be so wrong that there had to be a higher turnout? People can disagree about the 50 per cent figure, but is it fair to say that just 11 per cent—that was the example that Murdo Fraser gave—without any of the public voting, can decide whether industrial action goes ahead? People might disagree about the 50 per cent figure, but surely they would accept that 11 per cent seems a bit unfair?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You must draw to a close, please.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

There is genuine political disagreement across the chamber, certainly from our side, over the bill, but I hope that other members do not question our party’s motives for introducing the bill, because at its heart it is trying to get a balance towards the general public.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I put on record my membership of Unite the union and the EIS. I am also chair of the PCS parliamentary group and a member of the RMT.

Iain Gray, Drew Smith, Johann Lamont and other members were right to point out that the values of solidarity, community and workers’ rights are ingrained in the DNA of our party and our movement, and I am very proud of that.

Many members have said that the bill is a concerted, politically sectarian attack on the rights of working people to organise themselves into collective groups to promote and defend their rights at work. I was very pleased to see Green Party members, Liberals, independents, SNP members, Scottish Socialist Party members and Labour members joining in the rally outside at lunchtime.

The bill is nasty, vindictive and unnecessary, and it is driven by a hatred and complete misunderstanding of the role of trade unions. It is without a doubt a continuation of Cameron and Osborne’s class war, and it sits very nicely with their tax credit cuts, their benefit cuts and their attack on public services.

Today we have been accompanied by two of their Scottish class warriors: Mr Brown and Mr Fraser—Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They are the agency staff sent in to cover as the rest of their members have been on strike, never having participated in a ballot. I have sat here looking at their glum faces all afternoon. They look as though they have just gone into Greggs to buy a sausage roll and dropped it in a puddle on the way out. They should be embarrassed and ashamed to support the bill, because it is not needed. Strikes are at their lowest level for decades, as Patrick Harvie told us. People lose money when they go on strike, and no one withdraws their labour easily—it is always a last resort, particularly at a time of major economic uncertainty.

The purpose of the bill is to impose conditions and regulations on trade unions, wrapping them up in red tape at a time when the Tory party tells us that it is cutting red tape for business and for everyone else. None of the legislation will apply to the hedge funds, the pawnshop owners, the payday loan companies or any of the other businesses that bankroll the Tory party; it applies just to the trade unions that represent ordinary working people.

The bill aims to introduce greater powers for—rather than reduce the powers of—the regulator, and the certification officer will have increased powers. Unions will have to pay for the privilege of that greater regulation.

The bill will allow agency workers to be hired to break strikes, thereby legislating for scab labour—even agencies themselves do not want that. How on earth can something like that enhance community cohesion? Some of our communities are still suffering from the legacy of such divisions 30 years ago, and the bill will take us back to those. The Tories want unions to appoint picket supervisors who must provide their names in advance to the police, no doubt so that they can be identified for blacklisting afterwards.

Patricia Ferguson and a number of other members mentioned the increase in voting thresholds. The purpose of that is to make it more difficult to take industrial action. Of course, as many members have mentioned, very few politicians across the whole of the UK would ever reach such a threshold.

The most absurd and ludicrous claim about the bill is that it is all about democracy. What utter rubbish. If it was about democracy, we would have electronic voting, text voting and workplace balloting, which are all measures designed to increase turnout in ballots. Of course the Tories reject them all, because the bill has nothing to do with industrial democracy and everything to do with an attack on the organised labour movement. The Tories use electronic voting in their own internal ballots but will not allow anyone else to do so. Those are without doubt the actions of a tinpot dictatorship, and Ruth Davidson—wherever she is—and her group should distance themselves from those actions and this far-right ideological attack.

Members have mentioned that the bill seeks to restrict time off for duties. That is the time that representatives have for dealing with disciplinary issues, health and safety, welfare issues and pay. All of those things help to prevent and resolve workplace conflicts, making business easier and smoother to complete. We need only look at how an employer such as INEOS has brutally attacked the unions’ right to organise. Before the dispute at INEOS, there were 63 safety reps on that site, which is a very dangerous place. How many are there now? Three. That employer has taken advantage of the dispute to downgrade safety on its site.

The bill wants to ban public sector employers from deducting union fees from pay. The claim is that that is about saving taxpayers money, which is rubbish. Many unions pay to have check-off administered, so it costs the public little or nothing. That is a complete non-argument that exposes the politically sectarian nature of the bill.

Members will not often hear these words from me but Gordon MacDonald made an excellent speech today. It was a very detailed speech; Gordon MacDonald got it. Check-off donations to charities, credit unions, savings schemes and schemes like the cycle-to-work scheme are not affected. Only trade union check-off is affected. Can Mr Fraser defend that? I will give him the opportunity if he wants it—I didn’t think so.

The Tories also want to eat further into unions’ political funds. Many people mistakenly believe that we are talking about funding the Labour Party, but we are not. We are talking about funding all manner of political and community campaigns, not the Labour Party. Trade unions that are not Labour Party affiliates support the political fund.

Union members have the right to spend their money how they want to and the Government has no right to interfere with that. Cara Hilton was right when she expressed her view about opposition to the bill in the community. The bill has been opposed anywhere that we have been on the streets campaigning about it. It has also been fiercely opposed in the House of Commons.

Today we seek to unite the parties in this chamber and bring on board, if they exist in the Scottish Conservative party, moderate or libertarian Tories. David Davis has been mentioned. He likened the bill to something that would be found in Franco’s Spain, and he said that because of his father’s experience as a blacklisted worker in the mining industry. Will the Scottish Tories line up behind him or behind the legislation that could have been passed by a fascist dictatorship? We will find out at decision time.

It is clear that the bill will impact on areas of devolved authority and I am pleased that the minister has given a commitment to look at how we can bring forward an LCM; we fully support that.

We should also challenge the bill in the courts under human rights and competition law because it places a burden on public bodies that will not be placed on competitor private companies. That is clearly unfair competition and I hope that the Scottish Government will bring the weight of its legal department to bear on looking into that.

Many members have mentioned the lead of Labour councils up and down the country and I am pleased that North Ayrshire’s SNP council has now come on board with a non-compliance policy. I hope that the Scottish Government will do the same.

Let us build a coalition against the bill. Trade unions have been at the forefront of almost every major progressive development in our society. They are a force for good. Let us make sure that it continues.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

I call Roseanna Cunningham to wind up the debate. Cabinet secretary, you have until 5.28 pm.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

I am sorry—I got a little fright there, Presiding Officer. I had forgotten that decision time had been moved.

What has been made clear by today’s discussion is the key role that unions play in developing our economy and improving the conditions of many people working in Scotland. That has been the case for decades, reaching right back into the later part of the 19th century.

We all agree—or, we should all agree—that joining a trade union, seeking to protect people’s rights at work and, in some instances, withdrawing labour, are enshrined rights that protect workers in Scotland. Not only does the UK Trade Union Bill devalue those rights, it erodes International Labour Organization conventions to support workers’ rights to trade union representation, to collective bargaining and to protection from anti-trade union discrimination. Those conventions, which have long been ratified by the UK, are now under direct attack.

We have to ask ourselves why. Why would a Government seek to destroy the rights of its workforce, to challenge the employee-employer relationship and to silence the voice of employees? What evidence does the Government have that those things need to be fixed? There is a simple answer—there is no evidence. There is no justification for this attack on unions’ ability to fairly represent their membership.

In particular, there is no problem to fix in Scotland. In Scotland, we see trade unions as partners, not as opponents. That partnership approach is undoubtedly one reason why the number of days that are lost in Scotland due to strikes has declined by 84 per cent in the past seven years. Perhaps—just perhaps—what the UK Government should have done before it introduced this silly piece of legislation was come and talk to us about what is happening here.

In my view, the UK Government’s approach to trade unions is not only wrong, it is counterproductive. It is bad for the rights and conditions of workers, but it is also bad for business. Some weeks ago in Inverness, I took part in a round-table discussion that included employers, employees and trade union representatives. What was clear in that discussion was the value that employers place on their ability to speak with unions regularly to deal with issues well in advance of their becoming major concerns. That is an aspect of trade union activity that is going under the radar. The reality is that the vast majority of trade union activity takes place in that way—in those sorts of conversations—day and daily, week and weekly, and month and monthly, in workplaces where issues are worked out long before they ever reach industrial action. That is really important. Employers are placing importance on that ability to speak regularly with unions to deal with issues well in advance of their becoming major concerns. Is not that what should be happening everywhere?

However, the bill will shatter the ability of many businesses to support their workforces by aggravating relations between employer and employee, to the detriment of both. It will do precisely the opposite of what it claims to be doing. One wonders in those circumstances whether what the UK Government claims it wants to do is precisely the opposite of what it is seeking to do. It seems, with this bill, that the UK Government is spoiling for a fight. It is not looking to solve the problem; rather, it is looking to provoke a major dispute. It is reprehensible on the part of any Government to approach things in that manner.

In Scotland, we have a clear approach to engendering constructive and progressive industrial relations. That is why we established the fair work convention in the first place, by bringing business, unions, the public and the third sector together to validate good industrial relations and to promote better working practices in Scotland. That came out of the working together review, which again was a joint enterprise—the recommendations of which we have signed up to in full.

The danger with the Westminster Government’s approach is that it rides roughshod over the good work that is being done in Scotland, which results in our days lost to industrial disputes being so much below what they were in 2007, and certainly below where they are in the rest of the UK.

I will compare and contrast our approach in Scotland with the approach of the Tory Government at Westminster, where it looks as though a Government of confrontation is emerging, and not a Government that is in any way interested in resolving problems. It is a Government that is spoiling for a fight. It thinks, I suppose, that that will play to its own backwoodsmen. It certainly will not play in Scotland, and I am guessing that if the Tory Government continues on the way that it is going, instead of having one Tory member of Parliament returned from Scotland, no Tory MPs will be returned from Scotland. I suggest that, next year, the Tories in Scotland will find their numbers much depleted, because the bill is going to be seen as a vindictive attack on workers’ rights.

Our approach in Scotland differs significantly from that of the rest of the United Kingdom, which makes it all the more frustrating that the UK Government is bulldozing through the legislation with no understanding of, or interest in, the impact that it will have in Scotland. Indeed, the House of Commons committee meeting at which I gave evidence alongside Grahame Smith provided clear evidence of the total lack of interest of the Conservative members on that committee in the actual impact of the bill. Those members were interested only in trying to assert a reserved function and had precisely no concern at all for the impact of the legislation on the ground. That was reflected in their attitude to those who gave evidence from the rest of the UK. If those Conservative members are serious about industrial relations, they might consider looking northwards to assess why we in Scotland have achieved such a major reduction in industrial disputes. It has come about as the result of a lot of hard work and discussion over a long period.

Iain Gray was absolutely correct that the bill would return us to 19th century industrial relations. It is absolutely shameful. I am therefore grateful for Labour’s support for a legislative consent motion. We shall see how we get on with that with the various authorities.

Interestingly, Murdo Fraser had a lot of warm words for trade unions, but he seemed to want to exclude public service trade unions from those warm words. In the by-going, I think that he also misrepresented the STUC’s position, as Linda Fabiani subsequently made clear. In the STUC’s submission to the Smith commission, it called for devolution of employment law, health and safety, trade union law and the minimum wage.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Just to clarify, I say that I did not refer to the STUC in my opening speech; I referred to the TUC.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

Clearly, Mr Fraser does not want to talk to the Scottish Trades Union Congress. That is an interesting point. [Interruption.]

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

The unpalatable truth for the Conservatives is that, far from reducing the number of days lost to industrial disputes, their approach could well lead to more actions.

I am watching the time, Presiding Officer, but I want to refer to some of the members who have contributed to the debate. Johann Lamont was right to draw attention to the likely detrimental effect that the bill will have on industrial relations. Most discussions between trade union reps and employers work to reduce conflict, as I mentioned earlier. However, that is in no way reflected in anything that the Conservatives are doing.

Gordon MacDonald talked about the value of facility time and the nonsense of the proposed removal of check-off facilities. He also highlighted the adverse effect of the bill on industrial relations as a whole.

I was pleased to hear Willie Rennie’s point that the Conservative Government is trying to solve a problem that does not exist, because that is exactly the view that we take. I could not agree more with him. He helpfully referred to a 2014 poll that suggested that public support for unions is far greater than the Tories might think, so they would be well advised to be careful when they make such public attacks on trade unions.

I see the Presiding Officer’s pen being waved in my direction, which suggests that I probably have to move swiftly to closing.

As I mentioned, at no point prior to publication of the bill did the UK Government seek the Scottish Government’s views on how the bill would impact on Scotland, and specifically on how it would impact on our approach to delivering effective public services. That is why we are taking the action that we are taking. We will continue to support, as we do now, our workers and the trade unions that represent them. It is right that the Parliament is considering the proposed legislation by the UK Government, because it will affect fundamentally the operation of Scottish public services and those who work to deliver them. That is why we are taking the action that we are taking. I strongly commend the motion and the amendment.