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What is wrong with this bill? Dave Moxham from the STUC beautifully summed it up when he gave evidence to the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee:
“You will not be surprised to hear that the STUC’s view is that the bill is designed to fix a problem that does not exist, given that strike levels are at an historic low across the UK. As the Scottish Government has pointed out, the levels are even lower in Scotland. We consider the bill to be an ideological attack on the very basis of trade unionism. Trade unionism is designed to provide an effective balance in the workplace between the interests of workers and the interests of managers.”—[Official Report, Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, 7 January 2016; c 2.]
I could not agree more. Westminster clearly has not managed to get a handle on the idea “If it ain't broke, don't try and fix it.”
What is wrong with the bill? Practically everything. We have heard quite a lot of examples already. The bill not only tries to repair a problem that does not exist—we have more than enough real problems to be getting on with—but cuts to the heart every worker’s basic human rights.
The Law Society of Scotland and the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland have drawn attention to what the Government in London seems to feel is a minor impediment. Although the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Sajid Javid MP, is convinced that there is no such threat, he finds it hard to clarify just how he arrived at that conclusion.
The secretary of state has made a statement about the bill’s compatibility with the European convention on human rights—as he is rightly required to do—but he has avoided addressing the obligations under the United Nations and the International Labour Organization treaties ratified by the UK or its obligations as a signatory to the European social charter. Perhaps we should not be surprised by that. The Westminster Government has an astonishing ability to not answer any difficult or challenging questions. We have seen that not just in the context of the Trade Union Bill, but in everything from immigration and refugee policies to flood defences and the Barnett formula. We do not need to go back to the Tolpuddle martyrs in 1834 to concede that the exploitation of workers is bad for workers, bad for employers and bad for the economy.
Currently, the law protects the right of a trade union to organise and encourage its members to take part in peaceful picketing, provided that it meets certain requirements in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The bill might be in breach of article 11 of the ECHR, which deals with freedom of assembly and association, particularly if it is read alongside article 14, which is about freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of ECHR rights.
Trade Union officials in the public sector are accustomed to having some facility time to deal with members’ interests—I used facility time when I was a trade union activist. Clause 13 would limit that time and would probably restrict the proportion of the employer’s pay bill that is dedicated to facility time. The powers are dangerously open ended and could readily be used to interfere with freedom of association rights.
The STUC said:
“With less facility time, members would get a poorer service and workplace disputes could increase. Some private sector employers might reduce facility time even though they’re not forced to. Devolution means that employers such as the Scottish Government, councils and health boards should be free to spend resources without interference from the UK Government. We are calling on all public sector employers not to co-operate with the legislation. And many have already agreed to do this.”
The House of Lords is an unelected and unrepresentative body, but it is encouraging that it decisively defeated the Government over trade union funding of political parties, even though there was some self-interest in doing so.
Nothing hobbles an organisation as effectively as the creation of unnecessary but—according to the Government—essential paperwork, and trade unions are no different in that regard. Many people have pointed out that the bill seeks to make everything more time consuming and to take a more old-fashioned approach, while cutting back the time available to comply with the regulations. Westminster is making things more old fashioned; who would’ve thunk it?
Baroness Smith of Basildon rejected the Government’s claims that the bill will not hurt her party financially. She told peers that democracy would be damaged if the Government pushed through the changes on funding without the changes being fully scrutinised by a select committee. To require union members to opt into paying a levy, rather than enabling them to opt out if they want to do so, is a great way of increasing bureaucracy and reducing the budgets that help union members.
As we heard, the First Minister is seeking exemption for Scotland from this destructive, negative bill, which seems designed to damage constructive relationships between employers and staff. The First Minister is absolutely right to take that approach and I think that she has the backing of most MSPs.
That effort is only the tip of the iceberg. What we need is full control over employment legislation. If some members of the Smith commission had supported that, we might not be here debating the Trade Union Bill. What the Scottish Parliament needs is the power to work in Scotland’s interests. A bit of discussion in the meantime would help.
The late Jimmy Reid said:
“From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable.”
We should never forget those words as we debate the Trade Union Bill.