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Trade Union Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 26th January 2016.

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Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

I thank the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee and its convener, Bruce Crawford, for its swift consideration of the legislation and the memorandum that was sent to the committee. The majority of members recognise the urgency of the matter, and I appreciate the flexibility that the committee showed in considering it so quickly.

Concerns about this poorly thought-out piece of legislation are being expressed across the board. Last week, the House of Lords asked the United Kingdom Government to think again about the impact that the bill will have on political funding. The consultation responses, which were also published last week, show an overwhelming level of opposition to the UK Government’s plans, but still it ploughs on.

In November last year, the Scottish Parliament made plain its opposition to the bill with the motion opposing the legislation being carried by 104 votes to 14. In that debate I explained the Scottish Government’s view that trade unions are a force for good in modern society; that unionised workplaces have more engaged staff, a higher level of staff training and a progressive approach to staff wellbeing; that unions help employers to create the safe, humane and productive working conditions that head off industrial disputes and build better businesses; that any legislation that undermines the value and contribution that trade unions can make is a “thoroughly bad idea”; and that the bill is nothing more than an ideological attack on unions, with no evidence to underpin it.

That view was emphasised by the First Minister in the Jimmy Reid lecture at the end of last year, in which she said that the Trade Union Bill

“is based on a world view that I simply don’t recognise. It sees the relationship between employers and trade unions as one of conflict rather than co-operation. It doesn’t reflect public opinion here nor does it reflect the reality of industrial relations here. It offers illiberal solutions to a problem which simply doesn’t exist in Scotland.”

In November, I made clear my intention to continue to pursue the UK Government to exclude Scotland from the bill entirely. Further, if it remained unwilling to seek the consent of the Scottish Parliament, I committed to exploring every basis for a legislative consent memorandum and motion and, in doing so, I fully recognised that it was “uncharted territory”.

Although I am disappointed, I respect the Presiding Officer’s ruling on my legislative consent memorandum, even if I suspect that it would not have been given with any great satisfaction. Similarly, I understand the frustrations that are being felt on the Labour benches regarding the process.

The experience suggests that the Parliament might wish to look again at its standing orders to consider whether Parliament should have a clearer mechanism that would enable it to express its opposition to what is deemed to be reserved legislation. I recognise the spirit of the Labour amendment and I will support that, but it is important to find the right mechanism to achieve it and it is right that we ask the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee to consider the matter further and come up with options for the best way forward.

By choosing to lay a general policy memorandum on 11 December, I ensured that the Scottish Parliament has been able to express its opposition in the clearest possible terms to Westminster. The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee might wish to consider how effective that approach has been. However, although expressing our opposition might underline that this fundamentally flawed piece of legislation is unfit for purpose, it will not stop the bill in Scotland. It is clear that the one single action that will do that is giving the Scottish Parliament powers over workplace relations.

While the Trade Union Bill and the Scotland Bill are still going through at Westminster, I call on all those who oppose the legislation to do everything that they can do to push for the bills to be amended to remove Scotland from the extent of such regressive legislation. I assure each and every worker in Scotland that we will leave no stone unturned and no route unexplored as we seek to block this exceptionally damaging legislation being applied in Scotland, and that the Scottish Government is regularly making the case to the UK Government at every level, including through discussions between the First Minister and the Prime Minister; such is the priority we are affording this matter.

Today’s debate, and the strong support from the Parliament, will further strengthen those representations. It is crucial that all of those opposed to this bill, whether they be members of the Scottish Parliament, members of Parliament, union officials, public sector leaders or anyone else, make the case to the UK Government that this legislation is not needed or wanted in Scotland. These issues should be the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament.

The Devolution (Further Powers) Committee’s report recognises that the proposed legislation is a litany of errors, from its questionable purpose and competence to its lack of proper consultation, all intent on destroying the effectiveness of trade unions and Scotland’s good industrial relations.

The committee took evidence on the general impact on industrial relations and the culture of partnership working in Scotland. It considered evidence on the specific proposals within the Trade Union Bill such as ballot thresholds, a statutory cap on facility time and check-off provisions, as well as European convention on human rights matters and other international obligations.

In drawing its conclusions, the committee recognised the complete lack of evidence to support a bill of this nature being imposed on Scotland. That entirely echoes the UK Government’s own Regulatory Policy Committee’s findings that the impact assessment by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the bill was “not fit for purpose” and that there is not sufficient evidence to support the UK Government’s quoted assumptions to justify the bill.

Indeed, the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee heard directly from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities human resources spokesperson, Councillor Billy Hendry, describing the Trade Union Bill as an

“unnecessary and unjustified imposition, which could ultimately lead to more industrial unrest across Scotland.”—[Official Report, Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, 7 January 2016; c 5.]

That is a view that I have no hesitation in sharing.

I see the smiles of members on the Tory benches. It seems remarkable to me that, faced with a good industrial relations record, it is the intent of the Conservative Party to do as much as it can to damage that record. That seems to me to be utterly opposite to what it claims is the point of the bill, so I agree with the further powers committee that the bill is unjustifiable, both across the UK and in its application in Scotland.

Industrial relations here are good. The number of working days lost due to strikes has declined by 84 per cent since 2007—that is the highest reduction anywhere in the whole of the UK. Last year, fewer days were lost in Scotland, relative to our working population, than in any other part of the UK.

Frankly, the UK Government would have done better to learn from partnership approaches to industrial relations—not just in Scotland but across the whole of Europe—rather than choosing the flat-out confrontation that seems to be its preferred, wholly unjustified route. The UK Government remains hell-bent on demonising trade unions and ignoring the benefits that they bring to employers and our wider economic success.

In its report the committee was deeply disappointed at

“the lack of consultation ... with major public sector employers in Scotland and with other organisations more widely.”

As the report points out, more than half a million people are employed in the public sector in Scotland—that is 21 per cent of the workforce. Ninety per cent of the total are employed in the devolved public sector. As such, the devolved public sector’s views, as major employers with responsibility for industrial relations, should have been taken into account by the UK Government, but they were not.

It is worth looking at some of the measures and how they will impact on that major part of the Scottish workforce. The UK Government wants the right to restrict facility time in the public sector. Facility time means that employees can spend time carrying out union duties: helping employees at disciplinary hearings, offering training, advising on health and safety matters, and meeting and supporting employers. It is a vital part of our partnership working; it is not a drain on taxpayers or an abuse that needs to be controlled. It is most often how we avoid an escalation to strike action, and curtailing it is far more likely to cost the public purse than it is to save money.

The UK Government also advocates a ban on public sector employers using check-off facilities—the payroll mechanism that enables union membership subscriptions to be deducted at source. The Scottish Government, as an employer, has been operating a check-off facility for years. The costs are so minimal that we have never charged unions for it. Attempting to change that is an extraordinary attempt to control how we as a Government act as an employer. It demonstrates that, fundamentally, the UK Government wants to discourage union membership and in turn to curtail the ability of the Scottish ministers to effectively administer devolved public services as we see fit.

It is clear from the UK Government’s actions that it does not care about the impact of the bill on Scotland. In fact, the UK Government seems to have no interest in the impact on any of the devolved nations, and it is showing little respect for the parliamentary processes in England, as most of the bill will be delivered by regulations, which we have yet to see. That is an increasing trend from a UK Government that is trying to push through unpopular policies that do not stand up to scrutiny.

The Devolution (Further Powers) Committee highlighted in its report the need for good working relationships between Governments, with parties seen as equal partners, and for adequate consultation on matters that have an impact on each other’s jurisdiction and competences. I agree entirely but, as I discussed last week with my counterpart in the Welsh Government, Leighton Andrews, the reality is that that is most certainly not the case. A Government debate on the bill is taking place today in the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh Government is taking a different approach to its opposition in a way that reflects the differences in the Welsh devolution settlement. Both Governments are exploring all the options that they can through the processes that are available.

I have called on UK ministers to make clear their intentions regarding how the legislation and the supporting regulations will impact on the devolved nations and in particular the devolved public services, but there has been no response from the lead UK minister. As I said, the First Minister is now making similar representations to the Prime Minister.

I echo the committee’s recommendations that the UK Government should stop the bill in its entirety or reconsider its position on legislative consent, in recognition of the widespread opposition across Scotland. Unfortunately, however, I completely understand and share the committee’s view that such a call will in all likelihood fall on increasingly deaf ears. We must therefore continue, with the Scottish Trades Union Congress, local government, the national health service and others in the Scottish public and private sectors, to oppose and challenge the bill and its effects in Scotland. In the truest spirit of the trade union movement, we must work together if we are to succeed.

The Scottish Government sees trade unions not as opponents but as partners. We want to work with unions and businesses to create a more productive, prosperous and equal society. To do that, we have established a relationship not of conflict but of co-operation. The UK Government’s proposals are deeply damaging to that approach. They represent an attack on the union movement and an assault on the rights and practices that workers have fought to protect over generations.

I fully endorse the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee’s rejection of the UK Government Trade Union Bill, and I commend to members the motion of support.

I move,

That the Parliament unreservedly supports the report of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee that reaffirms the Parliament’s opposition to the UK Government’s Trade Union Bill; notes that the Bill, if enacted, has the potential to significantly damage Scotland’s good industrial relations record; welcomes the committee’s recommendations that the Scottish Government continue to use all avenues to remove Scotland from the territorial extent of the Bill or, as a minimum, seek that the regulation-making powers relating to facility time and check off be conferred on the Scottish Ministers as they directly relate to public services in Scotland, and notes that the Scottish Government is working with the STUC, COSLA and others who oppose the Bill.