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Industrial Action Update

Volume 584: debated on Thursday 10 July 2014

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to update the House on today’s industrial action called by some public sector unions.

I start by thanking the large majority of public servants who have turned up for work today as normal. This reflects their dedication to their public service calling.

This is the fourth one-day public sector strike in the past few years. The proportion of public sector workers going on strike has fallen on each occasion. So far as the civil service is concerned, it has fallen from 32% in November 2011 to 23% in May 2012 and 21% in March 2013, and today it has fallen below 20%. Every jobcentre opened this morning. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has seen a surge in the use of digital services, which helps the drive towards greater efficiency and more convenience for taxpayers. I am told there have been no major issues at the borders. The majority of schools have remained open.

The Government have put in place contingency measures to minimise the impact of strike action, but where there is disruption the responsibility lies unequivocally with union leaders.

When unions go on strike, it is hard-working people who suffer the consequences most, including vulnerable people who depend on public services and parents who are forced to take a day off work or arrange child care because their local school is closed. These strikes risk damaging those who are working hard to get this country moving again.

There can be no escape from the realities of our economic situation. We are still dealing with the damage left by the great recession. As part of their long-term economic plan, the Government have taken tough decisions to reduce the budget deficit—which I remind the House was the biggest in the developed world. This includes pay restraint while protecting those earning under £21,000. By reforming public sector pensions in the way we have done, we have ensured that they remain among the very best available, while making them affordable and sustainable into the future.

We cannot afford to go backwards. It is only by taking difficult decisions in the long-term interests of the country that we can deliver the economic growth that we need if we want to carry on investing in our public services, our schools and hospitals and the dedicated staff who work in them.

Trade unions can, of course, play a constructive role in the modern workplace. That is why the Government will continue to talk with the unions and listen to their concerns.

The right to strike is an important freedom under the law, but it must be exercised responsibly. Only one in five of eligible members of Unite and Unison took part in these recent ballots, meaning the strikes were approved by only a fraction of the unions’ eligible members.

The National Union of Teachers—the only teaching union calling a strike today— has not even balloted its members. Instead, it relies on a ballot from back in 2012—nearly two years ago. This cannot be right. The more often unions call strikes based on outdated mandates and ballots with pitifully low levels of support, the stronger the case becomes for reform of the law.

Growth is returning to the British economy, but we have a responsibility to ensure that the economy that emerges from the great recession is strong and sustainable. We must never again allow Britain’s public finances to fall so catastrophically into deficit.

I commend this statement to the House.

May I begin by thanking the Minister for advance sight of his statement in the nick of time?

Let us be clear: we on these Benches have said repeatedly that no one wants to see strikes, not least because of the impact they have on children, parents and all of us who rely on our vital local public services.

The Minister is right to say that it is hard-working people who suffer the consequences most, but should not the Government bear much of the blame for the situation today? Instead of ramping up the rhetoric, the Government should have been getting people around the table. Strikes represent a failure on all sides, and all sides have a responsibility to prevent strikes from taking place.

Will the Minister outline exactly what specific talks he has he had with the unions to prevent today’s strike action? What has he done specifically to encourage both sides to get around the table and prevent this industrial action? When was the last time he discussed the issue with the trade unions in his own Department and those more widely engaged in the public sector? What are the Government going to do to change their approach to prevent future strikes from happening in the future?

Instead of a negotiated settlement being sought, have we not had yet another depressing demonstration of a Cabinet full of millionaires demonising the lowest paid workers in society? In local government, nearly 500,000 workers are paid less than the living wage.

When the Minister mentioned outdated mandates and ballots with pitifully low support, I thought he was referring to the police and crime commissioner elections introduced by the Government. I remind him that the trade union legislation we have today was introduced by Margaret Thatcher, who was not known for her warmth towards the trade unions. We await any details of the Minister’s proposals—there was none in the statement.

It is important to recognise that, if we look at the total number of all those eligible to vote in the Minister’s own Horsham constituency, where he enjoys a comfortable majority, we will see that he secured only 38% of support at the last general election. No one would question his legitimacy—or, indeed, that of any Member—to be a Member of this House. Members of this House are in no position to lecture the unions about legitimacy. At the last general election—an election the Conservatives failed to win, by the way—the Conservative party secured only 36% of the popular vote, but here it is, four years later, still in office, so it is a bit rich for Ministers to be lecturing anyone else about legitimacy.

This week we have seen the ongoing, unedifying spectacle of the Minister rowing in public once again with his own civil service. He is like a man trying to fight everyone in the pub at the same time. When the country needs to see a negotiated settlement, what have we got? We have ministerial belligerence revelling in confrontation, where strike action by the unions is almost a public policy success for a Government desperate for a fight. It is sabre rattling, it is union bashing and it is playing politics. It is a deliberate distraction and, frankly, it is pathetic.

We are all desperate to see the Government getting all sides around the table to reach a negotiated settlement so that teachers can get back to teaching and vital local government workers can get back to work. The truth is that Ministers are making that task harder, not easier.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the succession of compliments he paid me. Perhaps I can deal with some of the issues he raised. He first raised the issue of the legitimacy of the Government. I point out that the parties that form the coalition Government secured the support of nearly 60% of the voters at the last election, which compares with the 29% that his party secured, so I am grateful to him for drawing attention to that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about discussions with the unions, which is a very important question. When we dealt with the long overdue issue of public sector pension reform, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and I conducted long discussions and negotiations with the TUC over a long period. They were incredibly valuable, and as a result we were able to make some changes to the configuration of the proposals. That enabled us both to secure public sector pensions that still remain among the very best available, on a basis that was sustainable and affordable for the future and to meet the particular concerns of particular unions. The process was valuable, and if the hon. Gentleman talked to any of the trade union leaders who took part in it he would find that they say that that enterprise was taken forward in a spirit of proper partnership and deliberation.

The hon. Gentleman asked about recent discussions with the trade unions. I can tell him that talks were planned with the civil service unions a couple of weeks ago, but they had to be aborted because the Public and Commercial Services Union was picketing the building in which the discussions were to take place. None of the union leaders felt able to cross the picket line so, sadly, the discussions had to be postponed.

Yes, I would, but it takes two to take part in discussions, so that was all a bit unfortunate.

Let me point out that

“public sector pay restraint will have to continue through this parliament. There is no way we should be arguing for higher pay when the choice is between higher pay and bringing unemployment down… That’s something we cannot do, should not do and will not do”,


“the priority now has to be to preserve jobs. I think that’s a recognition that everybody would see all round the country. We have got to do everything we can to preserve employment”.

Those are not my words, but those of the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition.

It is just worth pointing out that all the right hon. Gentlemen’s brave words supporting public sector pay restraint fall away when we understand how much money the Labour party gets from the unions that have called the strikes today. What is it? Some £23.6 million has been given to the Labour party since the current Leader of the Opposition became its leader. Unite has donated £12.5 million, Unison £5.7 million and the GMB £5.2 million. That is why it is no surprise, as the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday, that the Labour party’s guidance on the strikes is: “Do we support strikes? No. Will we condemn strikes? No.” Weak, weak, weak.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that pay restraint has helped to keep jobs and to reduce the deficit we face in this country?

My hon. Friend is completely right. About £12 billion will have been saved as a result of pay restraint in the current spending round period, which is equivalent to the cost of employing 65,000 teachers or 71,000 nurses over that time. The 5% pay claim made by PCS for the civil service would cost £500 million every year, which is equivalent to further civil servant work force reductions of 18,000. Every increase in pay means fewer jobs.

The Electoral Commission report on the police and crime commissioner elections in November 2012 stated that the turnout of 15.1% was

“the lowest recorded level of participation at a peacetime non-local government election in the UK.”

Does that mean that the Government’s flagship policy of police and crime commissioners and those who have been elected lack any legitimacy?

I point out to the hon. Lady that what the police do locally affects every single resident in the area, and every single resident over the age of 18 has the right to vote in those elections. When unions call strikes that affect local residents, parents and vulnerable people who depend on public services, such people are not consulted. It is not asking very much to require a union, when it calls its members out on strike in ways that damage the public, to have to rely on a vote of substantive quantity, with a majority behind it.

Was it not Lord Hutton, a former Labour Cabinet Minister, who made it clear that as we are all living longer, everyone will have to pay more into their pensions and to work longer? Has my right hon. Friend had any shadow of a scintilla of a suggestion from the shadow Chancellor that if Labour were elected, it would treat either public sector pensions or public sector pay in any way differently from the present Government?

My right hon. Friend asks a very pertinent question. The answer is that we do not know. There has been no suggestion of any increase, but we note that when Mr Len McCluskey recently promised to fund the Labour party campaign from Unite’s political fund, he said that he expected a union representative to sit at the Cabinet table. I think we know what the answer to that one will be.

Is the Minister aware that, despite all the Tory smears and slurs today, those taking industrial action are fighting for justice and fairness, and that they have absolutely nothing to be ashamed about? As for trade union money coming to Labour, what about the vast sums that the richest people in the country have been giving to the Tories in recent weeks, and rightly so, because the Tory Government are out, as they always have been, to defend the interests of the richest people in this country?

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman, after all his time in Parliament, might have come up with something a little better and more original.

The truth is that the coalition Government inherited the biggest budget deficit in the world—bigger than in Greece, Spain, Portugal or Ireland—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) says, cheerfully, that we should have cleared it by now. Yes, if we had inherited a country in a better state than that in which he left it, the deficit might have been cleared by now. The truth is that we now have the strongest growing economy in the developed world, and part of that is undoubtedly due to the difficult decisions made in the long-term interests of the country, with precious little support from Opposition Front Benchers.

Will the Minister join me in thanking all the teachers in Shropshire and in Telford and Wrekin who have turned up for work today? Does he agree that this minority strike is causing huge disruption to families and parents throughout the county of Shropshire, and that teachers must get back to work as soon as possible?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking, as I did at the start of statement, all those public sector workers—the vast majority—who have gone to work today, despite the blandishments and calls to go on strike. They recognise that their public service ethos means that they want to be at work to support the people they are there to provide services for. I hope that the strikes, which are based on very old mandates and very little support among union members, will come to an end.

The Minister referred to the suffering of hard-working people. May I try to persuade him that many of the people striking or supporting the strike today are also suffering and are also hard-working, and that strike action is a course of last resort? This action has not been taken lightly, but with a heavy heart.

The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have some respect, says that strikes are not entered into lightly, but as far as the union leaders are concerned, they have been entered into very lightly. The NUT leaders did not call a ballot; they relied on a ballot that is two years old, and did not consult their members. The leaderships of the other unions—Unite, Unison and the GMB—have called this strike despite having recent ballots with extraordinarily low levels of support for strike action. I absolutely know that no one goes on strike lightly, but I think that when the hon. Gentleman looks at this, in his heart of hearts, he will conclude that trade unions leaders have called the strikes lightly and that they are causing damage to vulnerable people.

Many of my constituents will be inconvenienced today because of the politically motivated actions of union leaders. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the private sector has absorbed cuts to pay and pensions due to the circumstances in which the country found itself, and that unfortunately, other sectors including the public sector will have to do the same?

My hon. Friend draws out a really important point, which is that since the recession pay in the public sector has risen by more than it has in the private sector. The comparators show that average pay in the public sector is higher than in the private sector. I know that there are people on low pay in the public sector, as there are in the private sector, but the fact is that, given the appalling legacy that the outgoing Labour Government left the coalition Government, there have been tough decisions to be made and many people have had to make sacrifices along the way.

More than 1,000 jobs have gone from Stockton borough alone since this Government came to power, and the value of public sector pay, including for some of the lowest-paid part-time workers in our communities, has gone down by about 20% since 2010. Just 1% of £6,000, which is what many of those people are paid, would buy a loaf of bread each week for a year. If the Government can afford to give millionaires a tax cut worth many times more than public sector workers get paid in a year, why can they not find a way better to reward the people who clean the streets, empty the bins and look after our most vulnerable people?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. In his own area, many jobs have been created in the private sector, and the local growth initiatives that my right hon. and hon. Friends launched earlier this week will bring even more jobs there.

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, for every increase in public sector pay, there is a price to be paid in lost jobs.

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that there are millions of trade unionists who have not gone on strike today, a third of whom vote Conservative? I ask him to tread very carefully in regard to getting rid of the majority principle. I accept that it is important to have annual or regular ballots, as he has described, but if a law were brought in to remove the majority principle, it could have implications for other organisations and institutions.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. He has rightly been a passionate supporter of people’s right to join a trade union. He has made the point that trade unions are an embodiment of much of what we believe in as the big society and civil society, and I agree with him on that. He will also know from the things I have been saying during the four years that I have had the privilege to hold this office that I have resisted the repeated blandishments to go down the path of further legislation. I have consistently said that the more often the unions call strike action irresponsibly on the basis of outdated mandates and ballots with very low levels of support, the stronger the case for reform of the law becomes. The action that has been called for today has made that case significantly stronger.

Public sector workers have taken disproportionate real-terms cuts in their pay, conditions and living standards over the past five years, and no one has been harder hit than those in lower-paid public sector jobs. The Scottish Government are committed to paying at least the living wage of £7.65 an hour to all their public sector workers and have guaranteed no compulsory redundancies. Why cannot the United Kingdom Government make similar commitments?

What the hon. Lady says is simply not the case. Over the past five years, public sector pay has increased by an average of 13%, which is more than four times the average increase of 3% in the private sector. As far as the lowest-paid people are concerned, we have been at pains throughout this process to exempt people earning below £21,000 from any pay freezes, so what she says is simply not correct.

As hundreds of schoolchildren across Selby are being denied access to their education by the National Union of Teachers today, what message does the Minister have for the hundreds of families affected, including the parents who have been forced to pay for child care, and for the businesses that have been forced to give people time off work because of this illegitimate action by the NUT?

I would invite them to reflect that the responsibility for the damage that is undoubtedly being caused, despite all the effective contingency measures that we have put in place, lies squarely on the shoulders of the union leaders who have called this strike action on the basis of inadequate or outdated mandates. I would also invite them to ask the Labour party where it was when the strikes were called and whether it condemned them, and to look at the correlation between the amount of money paid to the Labour party by those unions and the Labour party’s action.

I support the public sector workers withdrawing their labour today, and I am pleased to say that I am an associate member of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which is not affiliated to our party. The Minister has said that we cannot afford to go back, but he seems happy to take public servants back with a 20% cut to their living standards as a result of Government policy.

It simply is not the case that public sector workers have suffered more than private sector workers. I shall repeat this at dictation speed: public sector pay has risen in the past five years—the period since the great recession—by more than pay in the private sector has risen.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the teachers and staff in my constituency, many of whom are union members, who have ensured that all but two schools there have remained open today? One of the two that have closed is a special school, and the parents have found it incredibly difficult to make alternative child care arrangements. How can it possibly be right for those parents to suffer what they have suffered today on the basis of a ballot taken two years ago that provided such a small mandate?

My hon. Friend makes a really powerful point. I join him in supporting and thanking all those people, including governors and other volunteers, who have rallied round to ensure that, wherever possible, schools could be kept open. That is very much to their credit. The strikes have been called on the basis of increasingly thin mandates, and people’s determination to keep public services open and available has increased. It is particularly wrong that a special school of the type that my hon. Friend describes should have been closed in that way.

Ordinary hard-working people, such as those I represent in Luton, should have the right to withdraw their labour in a responsible way and to stand up against people, many of whom are on much higher salaries, such as us here in Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman talks of mandates and legitimacy. Some police and crime commissioners were recently elected on the strength of securing just 5% of first-preference votes. Does he accept that that shows the lunacy of what he is saying?

I repeat the point that I made earlier, which is that all local residents are affected by policing decisions and that all local residents who are voters have the right to vote in those elections. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) whose children have been denied access to the special school they depend on were never consulted about this. They had no say in it; they just have to take what happens as a result of a strike called by union leaders on flimsy, outdated mandates, and I think that that is wrong.

Parents in Kettering whose children have been affected by today’s industrial action have telephoned me this morning to make the reasonable point that parents are now subject to fines if they take their children out of school during term time but that such legislation does not apply to teachers who deny loads of children their education for a day. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that very reasonable point when drawing up future legislation to prevent such industrial action in schools?

I hear what my hon. Friend says; he makes an interesting suggestion. Children being able to attend school on a predictable and regular basis is incredibly important in relation not only to their education but to the interests of their hard-working parents who want to go to work in order to support their families week in, week out. When arbitrary action is called in this way, based on flimsy and outdated mandates, damage is done to children and to their parents.

As somebody who has taken part in negotiations and been involved in strikes, I assure the Minister that people are very reluctant to strike. He has to understand that the trade unions are reflecting the concern over the cost of living because the purchasing power of wages has dropped by about 6% over the past three or four years. I urge everybody in the House to stop having a slanging match, because at some point, as the Minister and I know, he will have to sit down with the very same trade unions and negotiate a settlement. I urge him to do so as soon as possible.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I remind him that negotiations and discussions with the civil service trade unions were due to take place in the Cabinet Office only two or three weeks ago. Sadly, that meeting had to be aborted because the PCS was picketing the premises where the meeting was to take place and none of the union leaders was willing to cross the picket line.

Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am that many of my constituents will be forced to take a day off work today—and that many of them will lose a day’s pay—to look after their children because of a strike that was balloted on more than two years ago?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those people will be very resentful that their attempts to go to work and earn a living to support their families have been frustrated in that way.

My constituents in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington will be astonished to learn that the NUT strike is being justified on the basis of a ballot that was held almost two years ago. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be a much shorter period between a ballot and any action, and that it should be measured in weeks rather than years?

That is exactly the issue that has been raised by the circumstances in which these strikes have been called. The ballots are very outdated. The NUT ballot took place nearly two years ago. Why did the leadership of the NUT have so little confidence in balloting their members on strike action again? Is it because they saw what happened to the other unions, such as Unite and Unison, that did hold ballots, which saw less than 20% of eligible members voting and very small numbers of eligible voters voting in favour of strike action? Possibly. The fact is that these strikes are being held on the basis of flimsy and outdated mandates. The case for reform of the law gets stronger every time that happens.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who say that they do not support the strikes, yet in the same breath fail to condemn them, take the art of casuistry to new heights?