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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 Lesley Brennan Lesley Brennan Labour

I first note my interest as a member of Unite the union.

As we have heard already, a significant number of local authorities have debated motions, including my Dundee City Council where, thankfully, the SNP administration supported a Labour motion that said how much we are against the Trade Union Bill. Scottish trade unions, trade unionists and other stakeholders including NHS Scotland are opposed to the bill.

The extent of the opposition to the bill in Scotland was made clear, as we have heard, when the bill was debated in Parliament on 10 November and there was a significant majority of support for the motion against the bill, with only 14 members voting against that motion.

It is disappointing that the Scottish Government's legislative consent memorandum was rejected, because there is evidence that the Trade Union Bill will have an impact on devolved functions. For example, the proposed changes to facility time, which I would like to concentrate on today, will impact on the NHS, on local authorities and on other organisations that come under the remit of the Scottish Parliament. There is therefore a strong argument that the bill encroaches on the legislative competence of this Parliament.

It is important to remember why the current UK Government is taking the bill forward. Let me quote the Institute of Employment Rights, which has said:

“It is a fact that workers in unionised workplaces enjoy better terms and conditions.

Why? Because trained trade union reps are active in the workplace, negotiating, representing and promoting the wellbeing of the workforce.”

Facility time is an important component of the role of trade union representatives. Time off from an individual’s job is granted by the employer to enable a union representative to carry out his or her trade union role. It has been a right since 1975. As Margaret McDougall has said, union representatives’ duties are tightly defined. We must acknowledge the work that they do on top of their own workload—especially those in the public sector—and how much their workload has expanded over the past seven years. Many representatives do casework and preparation for meetings in their own time; facility time is not the complete amount of time that is involved in resolving issues. We need to be mindful of the contribution that union representatives make.

The proposals on facility time in the Trade Union Bill are very concerning because, if it is passed, all public sector employers in Scotland will be required to publish information on the amount of money that is used for trade union facilities, including paid time off, and trade unions will have to publish the amount of money that is spent on facility time and how much time is taken up with trade union activities. The critical point is that the UK Government will have the power to introduce a cap on the amount of money that local authorities can spend on facility time. The cap could also apply to various other trade union activities.

It is very important to remember that facility time is not some altruistic action by employers; there is a clear business case for facility time. According to the Royal College of Nursing,

“The Trade Union bill could have serious consequences for productivity and morale in the NHS, as new research shows that trade unions are saving the NHS across the UK at least £100 million every year. Independent evidence has revealed that staff turnover in organisations without union representatives is three times higher than in those with union representatives.”

When it is added up, the saving comes to £100 million year.

Evidence from a survey for the TUC and the “Personnel Today” website notes that the majority of

HR professionals ... agree that unions are an essential part of modern employer/employee relations”.

However, the Tories at Westminster want to weaken seriously the effectiveness of unions rather than promote industrial harmony and business efficiency, so the evidence of those beneficial outcomes is not being considered. No plausible case can be made for regarding the Trade Union Bill as constructive. It is not constructive; it is destructive. Facility time benefits not just trade union members, but everyone.

The Scottish economy is weak, and further reductions to the public sector will further weaken the economy. Scotland therefore needs a robust response from the Scottish Parliament on the Trade Union Bill, because Scotland cannot afford the bill. The Scottish Government acknowledges that the bill will have an impact on devolved functions. It will have devastating implications for Scottish public services, which benefit from facility time. Research that was published earlier this month in the journal Work, Employment & Society notes:

“In NHS Scotland, union participation in strategic decisions produced extensive co-operation to ... improve services and enhance staff terms and conditions.”

There is overwhelming opposition to the Trade Union Bill. I feel that we have a unique opportunity today to move beyond the rhetoric and instead genuinely to work together for Scotland. I was heartened to hear that the minister will support Neil Findlay’s amendment to support the proposal from Mary Fee to amend standing orders to allow thorough debate of the Trade Union Bill.