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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 Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

In her speech, the cabinet secretary made much of the fact that the bill has no place in Scotland. Frankly, it has no place anywhere in the UK. The cabinet secretary at least acknowledged that.

Trade union reform is not in and of itself unreasonable, but the Trade Union Bill is not about improving democracy, accountability or even the effectiveness of trade unions. Rather, it is a petty attempt to neuter unions and prevent them from properly representing the legitimate interests of their members. It is driven not by the demands of business or the needs of the public sector but by a determination to undermine the Labour Party.

As for the provisions on political funding, if the Tories were at all interested in tackling the distorting effects of money in our politics and elections, they would agree to calls from Liberal Democrats and others for genuine reform of party funding, rather than simply manipulating the rules in their favour. Rigging the deck in the way that the Tories are doing is nakedly political.

UK ministers claim that the bill is necessary in the face of increased strike action in recent years. However, given the profound economic shock that we have collectively been through in recent times, it is scarcely surprising that more people have been in dispute with their employers. To pin the blame, somehow, on irresponsible trade union activity is wrong, and deliberately so. It is also dangerous. Trade unions are vital in standing up for workers’ rights, improving productivity and protecting against workplace abuse and bullying.

Is it the case that some individuals in some unions act irresponsibly on some issues? Yes. Are there even those who make more of a habit of it? Perhaps. But is there anything that suggests that the reforms in the Tory Government’s bill are either justified or proportionate? Not at all, in my opinion. Yes, recent polls indicate that 29 per cent of people believe that trade unions are too powerful, but the same polls show that 77 per cent agree that they are essential to protect workers’ interests. UK ministers would do well to reflect on that.

Of course, it is no coincidence that the bill is appearing only now. As my colleague Willie Rennie reminded the Parliament back in November, the bill is made up almost entirely of measures that were proposed by the Conservatives over the five years of the previous coalition Government but blocked by Liberal Democrats, notably my former colleague Vince Cable.

However, it is not just about measures that Liberal Democrats blocked. In the run-up to last year’s election, Vince Cable drew up proposals on e-balloting that were aimed at helping to increase democracy and participation within trade unions. Those plans, which it seems are good enough for the Tories in selecting London mayoral candidates, are nevertheless off the table when it comes to union reform.

It is not simply trade unions and the Labour Party that stand to lose. A number of the measures risk damaging industrial relations in this country, as almost all the members who have spoken so far have mentioned. That is madness. Good industrial relations not only protect workers from abuse and intimidation but deliver better productivity, and effective relationships between employers, workers and trade unions are in the interests of all three, as well as of our economy as a whole. Trade unions work actively with management to deal with industrial disputes before they go too far. As Unison and others have made clear, if that balance of power is shifted, more serious grievances and greater detriment to that relationship in the workplace could be the result.

An example is facility time, which has been highlighted by the RCN—an organisation that even the most right wing of UK Tory ministers would struggle to demonise as Trotskyite troublemakers. In Scotland, trade union facility time is agreed as part of the NHS staff governance framework, but the changes that are proposed in the bill would, among other things, give ministers the power to impose a cap on the time that trade union representatives are allowed to carry out their duties. The underlying assumption appears to be that there are too many trade union representatives in the public sector, yet independent research suggests that the bill is attempting—as others have said—to solve a problem that does not exist.

As the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee argues, if the issue cannot be resolved at a UK level—Bruce Crawford helpfully set out the ways in which that may yet be achieved—we will need to ensure that Scotland is enabled to take a different approach, and the same applies with regard to the provisions on check-off. I say that as someone who believes that employment law is ideally consistent across the UK—indeed, a European Union-wide approach has delivered significant benefits in recent times.

On political funds, just as English votes for English laws is a self-interested, piecemeal and counterproductive way of dealing with the serious constitutional reform that our country needs, so, too, is picking off the Labour Party and trade unions for special measures instead of addressing the pressing need for fundamental reform of how all our political parties are funded.

The SNP Government often stands accused of legislating not because it should or it needs to but because it can, and of fixing problems that do not exist. Sometimes that criticism has emanated most vociferously from members on the Conservative benches, yet I can think of few more egregious examples of wrong-headed law-making than the Trade Union Bill. UK ministers propose to act not on the basis of what is in the interests of our country, our economy or our workforce, but for other reasons. They have made a political calculation about what they think will damage the Labour Party financially and politically. The fact that their proposals risk damaging workplace relations, workers’ rights and productivity seems to matter little to the UK Government.

On the grounds of civil liberties, workplace harmony and higher productivity, Liberal Democrats will continue to work with others here and at Westminster to oppose the Trade Union Bill, and I will support the motion and the amendment at decision time.