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I thank the members of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee for their comprehensive report on the impact on Scotland of the UK Government’s Trade Union Bill. I believe that, if it is enacted, the bill will have a detrimental effect on labour relations in Scotland for many years to come.
In my contribution to the debate on this subject that was held in the autumn, I highlighted the problems that would be created by introducing a general voting threshold, reducing facility time, making it difficult to collect union dues and undermining democracy by not allowing electronic voting. Those concerns still stand, so today I want to raise my concerns about clause 3 of the bill, which relates to ballot thresholds for “important public services”.
Clause 3 would require that at least 40 per cent of those eligible to vote would have to vote yes before any industrial action could take place. The areas of public employment that would fall under that clause is yet to be defined but it is likely to include the NHS, education, fire service and transport.
In its policy memorandum, the Scottish Government stated that that provision
“is wide enough to affect and have a negative impact on trade unions and their members who work in the public sector in Scotland in the important public services”.
The 40 per cent rule has been used to Scotland’s detriment before, back in the 1970s, but what would it have meant for the Tory Government if it had been introduced for Westminster elections? In 2015, the Tories received 11.3 million votes across the UK, or 37 per cent of the vote. That fails to meet the 40 per cent level, but that is not even the criterion that the Tories are seeking to impose. The turnout at the 2015 general election was 66 per cent of 46.4 million potential voters. Therefore, the Conservatives were voted for by only 24 per cent of eligible voters. Is it not a nonsense for them to impose a threshold for union ballots that they failed to reach?
In a submission to the relevant committee at Westminster, the BMA said:
“the ballot threshold levels ... are arbitrary, unnecessary and inappropriate. We have seen no evidence as to why an additional 40% threshold in ‘important public services’ has been chosen; the purpose of this double threshold appears only to be to make it more difficult for unions to organise industrial action.”
Even the Fire Brigades Union, which has met those thresholds in its recent ballots, stated in its written evidence to Westminster:
“These restrictions have no basis in domestic or international law or in other voting systems.”
The Devolution (Further Powers) Committee’s report highlighted the evidence of Dave Moxham of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, who argued:
“it is fundamentally and democratically wrong that an abstention should be counted as a no vote.”—[Official Report, Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, 7 January 2016; c 18.]
It is not as if we have a strike problem in Scotland. Since 2007, the number of industrial disputes has decreased by 84 per cent. The Scottish Government’s policy memorandum on the bill highlights that
“the Scottish trend in days lost to industrial disputes is the lowest of all the UK nations. If enacted as it is the Bill has the potential to destabilise the balance of the employer/employee relationship.”
Of course, the way to ensure that the number of days lost to strikes continues to fall is to improve dialogue between employers and employees. Clause 13 of the bill seeks to create a reserved power whereby a UK minister may make regulations to restrict facility time. As the Scottish Government has argued,
“Restricting facility time is likely to limit the Scottish Government’s ability to work effectively with trade unions on a range of issues as they will not have the capacity to engage.”
The justification for cutting facility time is explained in a letter from the UK Minister of State for Skills to the Westminster committee considering the Trade Union Bill in answer to a request from the SNP MP Chris Stephens. The UK Government seeks to cut facility time from 0.14 per cent to 0.07 per cent of the public sector pay bill but, as Bruce Crawford has highlighted, facility time in Scotland is already lower and costs the public purse less than the target that the Tories have set. Once again, the bill tries to resolve a problem that simply does not exist.
On 17 January, the First Minister told the Unite Scotland conference that the bill
“is nothing short of a full frontal attack on the rights and freedoms of trade unionists. It is, in my view, an attack on basic human rights.”
Of course, if all the political parties that opposed the bill had supported the devolution of employment law, as the STUC called for at the time, we would have been able to address the problem instead of just talking about it.
I believe that the devolution of employment law would be the most effective means of preventing the imposition of punitive and regressive Tory attacks on workers’ rights in Scotland. Last June, Labour refused to support a Scottish Government motion that called for the immediate devolution of employment law in order to ensure the protection and promotion of the rights and responsibilities of workers in Scotland. The Labour Party has repeatedly refused to support the devolution of employment law. I am sure that Labour does not prefer to leave power over workers’ rights in the hands of the Tories at Westminster but, unfortunately for Labour, people are judging it on the basis that actions speak louder than words.