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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 Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

Is my microphone on, Presiding Officer? I thought that it was like the nightmare that we had last week when the lights went out and that perhaps my microphone had gone off, too. Maybe some folk would have preferred it if it did but, never mind, it is on now, anyway.

I echo the views of those who have spoken in opposition to the Trade Union Bill. It is important that we speak up against this regressive bill. I believe that it is a direct attack not only on trade union rights but on human rights, and it must be seen as that. As a former shop steward, I was proud and privileged to represent and serve my members in the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. We not only raised issues that trade union members raised with us; we facilitated meetings with management. That is the crux of a lot of the argument about the bill. I think that we actually prevented strike action through those meetings with management. We put the voices of union members and their concerns first, and we won a lot of concessions. That is one of the jobs of the trade union movement.

To reiterate what the cabinet secretary said, trade unions are an essential part of the workforce, not just because they represent their members but because of the training that they provide and the fact that they put people through colleges. Trade unions do an absolutely fantastic job, and the bill is a very bad proposal for legislation. Some of the issues that members have mentioned obviously worry me, and I will probably pick up on some of them.

The UK Government’s lack of dialogue with not only the Scottish Government but the other devolved legislatures in the UK is deeply troubling for a number of reasons. Given devolution as it stands, many of the dealings that we have with trade unions in Scotland relate to sectors for which responsibility is already devolved, and further powers and responsibilities will I hope transfer to Scotland. That is important. Over the past 16 years, relations with those sectors have been largely influenced by the actions of consecutive Administrations in Scotland. We have a distinct relationship with those sectors and the employees in them. The proposed legislation will have a direct impact on that relationship, so I believe that the Scottish Government and the Parliament should have had a major say in it. As members have said, Dave Moxham and others mentioned that they were not consulted in any way whatever. It is troubling that the present Conservative Government is more interested in bypassing Parliament to implement what I would call its ideological drive against the poor in favour of the rich.

The conventional guarantees against autocratic rule in any democratic society are the rule of law, the separation of powers and public access to legitimate scrutiny of action. However, the Tories want to restrict that. As has been said, they introduced the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which would have made it more difficult to challenge unlawful Government decisions or subject public bodies to effective scrutiny. That bill was defeated in the House of Lords. At the time, the Labour peer Lord Beecham said:

“In the unlikely event of Mr Putin becoming aware of the Government’s approach, he would be lost in admiration.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 December 2014; Vol 757, c 1742.]

I love that wee quote. I do not think that that is the kind of admiration that we want. I would hope that even those on the Conservative benches would not want that.

The Conservatives then wanted to bypass Parliament to introduce new freedom of information laws. Incredibly, the Information Commissioner described that as an attempt by the Tories to return to “private government”. Since the elections, the Tories have increasingly used statutory instruments to try to introduce swathes of significant new laws and measures such as benefit cuts without debate in the House of Commons.

The Trade Union Bill is another way of removing people’s voices and making it more difficult for them to challenge Government decisions. It comes on the back of a concerted war against workers by the Tories, who have removed legal aid for employment tribunals, changed the rules governing unfair dismissal, changed the rules for employment tribunals and cut back on health inspectors, all to the detriment of workers.

That is all part and parcel of the Tory plan. It is another way of rolling back democracy and rights that, as we know, are hard fought for. The lack of proper discussion and scrutiny shows that it is also another example of the Tories’ lack of respect for Parliament, whether in Westminster or Holyrood. The Tories are keen to go to war in Syria and, covertly and without parliamentary approval, in Yemen. Their new war is the war on democracy.

We must oppose this badly thought-through legislation. It is a fundamental attack on workers’ rights and, more insidiously, a further attack on our democracy by an increasingly secretive and totalitarian Tory party that is hell bent on eroding fundamental rights throughout the UK. In addition, as other members have said, we must call for the devolution of employment law because, regardless of its stance against the Trade Union Bill, the Labour Party fails to support the one measure that would defeat it.