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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 Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

It is widely recognised that the Trade Union Bill is one of the most ill-judged, unnecessary and ideologically driven pieces of legislation since the days of Margaret Thatcher. It is ill judged because it will take away the last resort that is industrial action by workers and will force them to take more direct political action; it is unnecessary because days lost to strike action are at an all-time low; and it is ideologically driven because it seeks to give Government and employers more power and working people less. In short, it is a bad bill and we must do everything in our power to oppose it.

We debated the issue in November so I do not intend to rehash all the arguments that were used then. They still stand and are a matter of public record. Today, I want to look at where we now stand and what options are open to this Parliament to make its view on the bill known to the UK Government and, crucially, to seek change. Ideally, the UK Government would drop the bill, but we know that that is unlikely to happen.

The report by the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee is a welcome addition to the discussion around the bill. As we know, one of its recommendations was that we should have this second debate on the Trade Union Bill, so that the committee’s conclusions could be aired. The committee took evidence from relevant people with a direct interest in the bill’s provisions and their evidence backs up the view that the proposed legislation was rushed into Parliament and has not been properly consulted upon.

Indeed, the committee quotes the conclusions of the UK Government’s Regulatory Policy Committee, which stated that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’s impact assessment on the bill said that it is “not fit for purpose” and

“lacks evidence to support many of the quoted figures”.

The committee concluded that the provisions on check-off and facility time will not lead to savings or efficiencies.

I was struck by something that Clare Adamson said about health and safety and the Scottish Hazards movement. As members know, I have been greatly involved with the Stockline factory. That was not a unionised workplace; I like to think that if it had been, and if the trade union officials and lay trade union members had been able to go on a health and safety course, parts of the build-up to the incident that happened that day and which cost the lives of nine people would not have happened. People would have been alive to the dangers that were so apparent if one just cared to look.

The Devolution (Further Powers) Committee noted that the UK Government does not believe that a legislative consent memorandum or motion is needed, in spite of the fact that the proposed legislation seems to confer powers on UK ministers over the operation of check-off and facility time in the public sector. The committee suggested that it wants to encourage the UK Government to think again about that, but it recognises that it is unlikely to do so.

As we know, our debate is taking place at the same time as the same debate is taking place in the Welsh Assembly. Although the Welsh Assembly has considerably fewer powers than the Scottish Parliament, it is debating an LCM. As matters stand, an LCM in the Scottish Parliament has been ruled out by our Presiding Officer and her legal advisers. Consequently, Scottish Labour has suggested a change to standing orders that would alter the way in which an LCM is handled in the Scottish Parliament. If there is a will to do so, there is no reason why Parliament cannot quickly change its standing orders to allow any member to lodge an LCM.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government has said that it will accept our amendment. I say to my colleague Mr Stevenson, who is not in the chamber at the moment, that the Labour members who are on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee will be happy to work with him and other colleagues to ensure that the amendment that we come up with is absolutely right for the purpose.

Parliament’s Devolution (Further Powers) Committee suggested that Scotland should be removed from the territorial extent of the bill by amendment. As we know, time is running out so the committee suggested the further fallback that, as a minimum, the regulation-making powers relating to facility time and check-off should be conferred on Scottish ministers as they relate directly to public services in Scotland. I know that my Labour colleagues Eluned Morgan, Peter Hain and George Foulkes, as well as Jeremy Purvis of the Liberal Democrats, have tabled amendments to do just that, but perhaps the minister can tell us what discussion and engagement she has had with them about those issues. I understand that the amendments will be taken in the House of Lords on 8 February.

The UK Government seems to see the bill as some kind of demonstration of its virility. To me, it is a sign of weakness to seek to reduce the rights of workers and attempt to silence their voices through process rather than argument and discussion. It is symbolic of the UK Government’s attitude to trade unions, the ECHR and democracy.

Symbols can be important, so I suggest that we, as a Parliament, might like to make a small symbolic gesture. Perhaps the business managers of all the parties represented in the Parliament that oppose this anti-trade-union bill should go to Downing Street, taking with them copies of the Official Report of the two debates that have been held here to hand in, in order to make a practical and symbolic demonstration to the UK Government that a strongly held contrary view is held by the majority of Scots and their representatives.