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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 Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

That was a spirited end to the debate. Iain Gray came close to making me change my mind about the Labour amendment, given the nature of some of the comments in his closing speech. I do not think that they reflected the whole of the debate, however, because it has been valuable and has reinforced a couple of messages. Of course, members come at the issue from slightly different perspectives and it is unfortunate if some members do not respect and understand that.

The first message is that trade unions play an essential progressive role in our society in developing safe, productive and fair workplaces. That point was made eloquently by both Clare Adamson and Patricia Ferguson. The second message is that the bill is misplaced and ill thought out and it presents dangers in undermining those valuable contributions. The almost unanimous opposition to the bill is clear for all to see: it does not exist only in Scotland but is also happening in Wales and indeed in England, where the flaws in the bill, of which there are many, are continually being brought to light. I fear that, if the bill was passed, flaws would continue to be brought to light, perhaps including some that were unforeseen.

The bill is driven not by evidence or a commitment to creating better workplaces but by an out-of-date ideology and a dogmatic opposition to the fundamental principles of trade unions and workers’ rights, and no amount of dressing it up to the contrary is going to persuade anybody of anything different. The refusal to listen is clear in the UK Government's response to the findings of its consultations and in the lack of response to this Government’s representations to the UK Government. Despite its unwillingness to engage, we will continue to make those representations, working alongside all those who share our view.

Today’s debate has shown once again the wide range of ways in which the bill will have a negative impact if it is passed. I would like to reflect on a number of the issues that have been raised.

It is clear from the UK Government’s response to the findings of the consultations supporting the bill that it does not care about the views of the people that the bill will affect. Instead, it is bloody-mindedly determined to drive through the legislation regardless of impact. That scant regard for consultation is reflected in the Government’s response to the findings of the “Consultation on ballot thresholds in important public services”, which some members mentioned this afternoon. A majority of respondents disagreed with the categories that should be subject to the 40 per cent rule, but did the Government take any heed of that? Not a chance.

Kevin Stewart mentioned the BMA’s response to the bill. It describes the plans as “arbitrary” and “unnecessary” and says that they

“place punitive restrictions on workers employed in specified public services.”

It continues:

“Despite the Government’s claim that these measures are ‘not an attempt to ban industrial action’, the purpose of the ‘double threshold’ appears simply to be to make it more difficult for unions to organise industrial action.”

That is what the BMA had to say, but the UK Government chooses to ignore such evidence.

No doubt Alex Johnstone thinks that the BMA—and indeed his Tory Councillor Hendry—are politically motivated. Frankly, however, his analysis in his closing speech, which was interesting, cannot explain why Scotland’s record on industrial relations is so much better than that of the rest of the UK. If the legislation had been so wonderful, one might have expected to see the same kind of change in the rest of the UK, but Scotland stands ahead of all that.

Alex Johnstone might reflect on the measure of this Government’s commitment to working with the STUC and the trade unions that is evidenced in the memorandum of understanding, which sets out the parameters of that relationship. It was first signed in 2002 and has been refreshed a number of times since then, including as recently as May 2015. That is how sensible Governments do things. It is how we achieve what we have in Scotland, and it is the kind of thing that the UK Government should be looking at and considering—if it actually intended to do anything about industrial relations in a partnership way.

I note that, despite Alex Johnstone’s assurances and rhetoric, his speeches were singularly short on actual evidence. He might have taken the opportunity to lay that before us today, but its absence makes it clear once again that there is no such evidence. Bruce Crawford was unable to identify any such evidence, either. The clear lack of evidence, which has now been identified by so many organisations and individuals, must surely make even Alex Johnstone think again. We can conclude, therefore, that, however one might categorise the Conservative Government—many words spring to mind—it is clearly not in the business of evidence-led governing.

Christina McKelvie emphasised how detrimental the Tory Government’s approach is to trade union issues as well as to healthy businesses and productivity, and Lesley Brennan referred to that in respect of the NHS. They are absolutely correct, and that is the view that the Government takes on healthy industrial relations in the workplace leading to healthy and productive workplaces. That view is one of the foundations of both the working together review, which was carried out some years ago, and the fair work convention, which is currently looking at fair work practices. It comes out of the understanding that, without that essential partnership, we will not get the improvements nor the increases in productivity that we seek.

Margaret McDougall mentioned the likely adverse impact of the use of agency workers. She may recall that, in the debate in November, I made it clear that the Scottish Government will absolutely not use agency workers to cover a valid withdrawal of labour. The First Minister reiterated that assurance at the trade union rally on 10 December.

Gordon MacDonald raised the issue of clause 3, which is on emergency workers, who will now need to reach a 40 per cent threshold for their ballot, abstentions being counted as no votes. I wonder why that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths.

A number of members referred to the LCM process in this Parliament. I understand why members, including Neil Findlay, Margaret McDougall and Patricia Ferguson, want to focus on the issue of parliamentary process. However, I fear that they misunderstand the likely impact of any LCM in the circumstances that we are in with the bill. The assumption appears to be that Westminster will or must abide by a vote of this Parliament on an LCM; the difficulty is that there is uncertainty about that. The LCMs—formerly known as Sewel motions—are a convention that is not mentioned anywhere in the Scotland Act 1998, and, unfortunately, the Scotland Bill that is currently being debated at Westminster does not do anything to strengthen the position and role of LCMs. Leaving aside, for the moment, the issue of the devolution of all relevant employment powers, it might have helped had more attention been paid at the time of the Smith commission to the role of LCMs in the Parliament.