I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I see two or more new faces on the Opposition Front Bench this afternoon, and I want to begin by congratulating my new opposite number, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), on her appointment. She is certainly no stranger to Westminster; when she was first elected, I was just out of university. I believe that today marks the first time that our paths have crossed at the Dispatch Box, but I have long admired her skills as a parliamentarian and I look forward to working with her in the months ahead. I wish her all the very best.
I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna). We disagreed on many things, except our choice of haircut, but it was always a pleasure to debate with him and I am sure that he will continue to serve and represent his constituents with the passion and dedication that he repeatedly showed at the Dispatch Box.
I am also delighted to welcome the new Leader of the Opposition, the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), to the Front Bench. I congratulate him on his resounding victory in the election and wish him the very best of luck in his new role. He and I have two things in common, Mr Speaker. The first is that you will never catch either of us trying to eat a bacon sandwich. The second is that, like Members on both sides of the House, we both came into politics because we wanted to leave the world a better place than we found it. Obviously, you could put a rather large piece of cigarette paper between our ideas on how to achieve that, but his goal is the same as mine: a society that is fairer, more transparent and more just, in which the needs of the many are not outweighed by the wants of a few.
That is wishful thinking by the new Leader of the Opposition.
Since the industrial revolution, Britain’s trade unions have done much to help to deliver that fairer society that I was describing. They have helped to secure higher wages, safer workplaces and stronger employee rights. They have fought for social justice and campaigned for freedom and democracy, and they have supplied the House with some of its most eloquent and influential Members, including Leaders of the Opposition.
Unions helped my father when he first worked in the cotton mills. They helped him again when a whites-only policy threatened to block him from becoming a bus driver. Just as the workplace has evolved and improved since that time, so the trade unions and the laws that govern them have developed too. I hope that, in 2015, no one would argue for the return of the closed shop, the show-of-hands votes in dimly lit car parks or the wildcat walk-outs enforced by a handful of heavies. That is why the Labour Government repealed not a single piece of union legislation during their 13 years in power. Now it is time for Britain’s unions to take the next step, and the Bill will help to achieve just that.
The Secretary of State is pretending that the Bill is about democracy rather than being a vindictive attack on working people. If it is really about democracy and opening things up, why is he not lifting the ban on unions balloting online and in the workplace, which would be precisely the way to make a modern democracy work?
The hon. Lady will see that democracy and accountability are at the heart of the Bill—[Interruption.] She will see that a lot more clearly as I make progress with my opening remarks.
Despite what people may have read in some reports, this Bill is not a declaration of war on the trade union movement. It is not an attempt to ban industrial action. It is not an attack on the rights of working people. It will not force strikers to seek police approval for their slogans or their tweets. It is not a reprise of Prime Minister Clement Attlee sending in troops to break up perfectly legal stoppages. It is simply the latest stage in the long journey of modernisation and reform. It will put power in the hands of the mass membership; bring much-needed sunlight to dark corners of the movement; and protect the rights of everyone in this country—those who are union members and those who are not, and those hard-working men and women who are hit hardest by industrial action.
If this Bill was to be supported by the workers generally, some trade unions would already have given it support. This Bill is opposed by all those unions affiliated to the Labour movement and all those not affiliated to the Labour movement—even the Royal College of Nursing has said no to this Bill. It is a travesty and an intrusion upon the democracy of the workplace—get rid of it!
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has been able to get that off his chest. He will know, first, that the British people voted for this Bill at the general election and, secondly, that opinion poll after opinion poll has shown broad support for the measures we are discussing today.
There is a new Business Secretary in this Government and he is the one presenting this Bill.
Hon. Members from both sides of this House are, to some extent, insulated from the consequences of strike action. We are lucky enough to have generous travel expenses so that we can hire a car or a taxi when there is a transport strike. We have secure jobs, where we get paid whether we make it into the office or not. Even a Back Bencher is among the top 5% of UK earners, so we can afford to deal with the childcare costs that might come with a school closure or some disruption. But what about the low-paid restaurant staff who miss a day’s work and a day’s pay because of a stoppage called by a handful of transport workers? What about the self-employed builder who has to turn down a week-long job because a strike by teachers means that his kids cannot go to school? What about the single mother who cannot afford to lose a day’s pay by refusing to cross a picket line? Should she be subjected to abuse and harassment simply for going to work?
The Secretary of State talks about women on low pay. Many of these women and men do not have bank accounts, yet he is still trying to get rid of check-off, which makes it easier for people to join trade unions. How is that helping people to defend their own rights?
There is absolutely no relationship between check-off and bank accounts. Anyone who is able to take advantage of check-off must have a bank account in order to receive their salary in the first place.
I also want to talk about the impact on taxpayers, who have to fund the salaries of public servants, only for those public servants to spend their time on trade union business. Do taxpayers not have a right at least to know what their taxes are being spent on? These are the people who are not represented in current trade union legislation, and by increasing transparency, fairness and democracy, they are the people that this Bill will protect. [Interruption.]
That is outrageous. Have a bit of dignity.
On this issue of consistency, if the trade unions are going to have to pay for the enhanced services of the certification officer, does the Secretary of State believe that Members of Parliament should pay for the costs of our regulator, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority?
Does the Secretary of State agree that modern unions are at their best when they work with employers to get more skills, better training, higher quality work and better paid jobs, and that strikes are deeply damaging to the interests of the employees as well as the employers?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the heart of this Bill is partnership—partnership between trade unions and employers and other stakeholders. A great example of that can be seen at Toyota in Britain. It has not had one day of industrial action in 20 years, and that is because of the partnership that it rightly has with its trade union.
The Secretary of State is giving the House the impression that London commuters would somehow be protected by his threshold. Is he aware that the recent industrial action on the tube would have passed those thresholds? He talks about partnership. Is it not the case that it is not the strikes and the ballots that are the problems, but the intransigent Mayor of London who is sitting behind him?
I am coming on to thresholds, but the hon. Gentleman’s point proves that this is not some kind of ban on industrial action. Strike action can rightly still take place where there is clear support from the membership of the union.
Let me move on to thresholds. The whole point of strikes is to cause disruption, but the impact of industrial action on ordinary people—often the very working people whom unions were created to support—is such that it should ever be used only as a last resort. It should be taken only after the explicit backing of a majority of members. That is why this Bill sets a minimum turnout of 50% for industrial action ballots. If 1,000 union members are being asked to participate in a strike, at least 500 of them must vote for the ballot to be valid.
I will give way in a moment. In addition, strikes in certain public services will need the support of 40% of those eligible to vote. In our hypothetical 1,000-strong union, a successful ballot will require at least 500 votes to be cast with at least 400 of those being in favour.
Despite the Secretary of State’s fine words about the trade union movement at the beginning, does he not realise that what he is saying about what this Tory Government are doing is a continuous Tory vendetta against the trade union movement? He should be thoroughly ashamed that he is bringing in this Bill and, just as in 1927, it will be a future Labour Government who will ensure that this rubbish is destroyed and that trade unions are given back their basic freedoms.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the words of Rob Williams from the National Shop Stewards Network? He said:
“The message must be simple—Cameron, we are going to take you down. If this goes into law, we want mass co-ordinated strike action.”
Does that further underline the importance of getting this Bill into place?
I will give way in a moment. I also wish to highlight the additional requirement for ballots of staff in six key sectors: the health service, the fire service, border security and nuclear decommissioning—because of the obvious risks to public safety and security—and education and transport. A ballot is required because of the massive disproportionate disruption that stoppages in those areas can cause.
I have already addressed the hon. Gentleman’s concern. This is not a ban on strike action. This is about ensuring that our rules are modern and right and fit for today’s workplace.
We have consulted on which occupations within those sectors should be subject to the additional 40% support threshold. The consultation closed last week and we are now reviewing the results. We will publish the Government’s response and details of the scope of the 40% threshold by the time the Bill is in Committee in the other place. As I have said, these measures will not make strikes illegal or impossible. If union leaders can make a genuine and compelling case to their members, they will have no problem securing the votes required. I believe that the vast majority of industrial action is unfortunate and unnecessary, but it is important that workers are able to go on strike. If union members truly want to do so, I will not stand in their way.
First, as I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, in a general election the electorate do not face a binary choice. Secondly, everyone affected by the result of a general election has the right to vote. When a union votes on industrial action, only its members have the right to vote. Therefore, it is absolutely right that there should be a clear, effective mandate.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about having a mandate for this Bill. His party was wholly rejected in Scotland, so why does he not enter discussions with the Scottish Government to devolve trade union law to the Scottish Parliament?
My right hon. Friend was absolutely right to have a consultation on the additional 40% hurdle. He has talked about it in reference to the emergency services and other important services, but does he not agree that there is another issue: if we compare changes in strike action in the public and private sectors since the end of the last century, we see that over that 15-year period the number of strike days in the private sector has halved, but in the public sector the number has doubled?
I will give way in a moment, but first I will make some progress, because many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate.
It is also important that any industrial action reflects the current will of union members. As things stand, that is not always the case. Union leaders can secure a mandate for industrial action and then keep using it for as long as they please. For example, in October 2013 the NASUWT justified a walk-out by citing a mandate acquired in November 2011, almost two years earlier. That is hardly a constructive approach to industrial relations.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that the reason the Opposition object to the Bill is that when people choose to go on strike they get only a tiny bit of strike pay, not their proper pay? They have responsibilities and families to support, so nobody goes on strike just for the hell of it; they do so because they need to.
I think that the hon. Lady will therefore agree with the changes we are proposing today. She is right that strikes should always be a last resort—I think that is the point she is making. If union members wish to take strike action, they will vote for it and meet the proposed thresholds.
The question of mandates was raised a few moments ago. Is the Secretary of State aware that when over 1,000 Londoners were polled by YouGov last month, 53% approved of these proposals and only 26% disapproved? Even among Labour voters the measures were approved of by 40 to 38.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the problems with the unions using historical mandates is that, because time has elapsed, many of the employees who voted for strike action may have retired or moved employment in the meantime?
That is exactly the point I am coming on to.
When old mandates are used, it is not fair on union members. As my hon. Friend said, a two-year-old mandate is unlikely to reflect the latest negotiations and would fail to reflect changes in the workforce. To ensure that any industrial action is based on a current mandate from current members, the Bill provides a four-month validity period after a ballot result is announced.
Is my right hon. Friend not showing with this legislation, once again, that the Conservative Government are standing up for people who want to work and against bullies who want to stop them? That is what fundamentally underlies his approach?
I must plough on, but I will give way later.
The Bill provides that voting papers sent to union members and employers will state the details of the trade dispute, exactly what type of industrial action is proposed, and an indication of the time period in which that action will take place. This will ensure that members know exactly what they are voting for or against and allow them to make an informed decision.
One of the valuable roles performed by unions over the years has been to defend workers from abuse, bullying and harassment at the hands of managers. There is no place for such behaviour in the modern workplace, and I applaud anyone who stands up against it. But bosses are not the only culprits. The independent Carr report contained shocking accounts of appalling bullying and harassment directed at non-strikers by trade union members. There were threats that included details of where workers’ children go to school, and abusive text messages warning, “We know where you live.” Photographs of non-strikers were posted online in a bid to shame them. Workers who had failed to support industrial action reported being punished by colleagues who deliberately saddled them with antisocial shift patterns or isolated them in the workplace.
It is not acceptable for managers to harass and abuse trade union members who take lawful industrial action. Nor is it acceptable for strikers to treat those who choose to work in the same way. While such abuses are doubtless the actions of a tiny minority of trade unionists, they should never be allowed to happen without consequences. The Bill makes it clear that such intimidation has no place in the modern workplace.
Is it not the case that this is just another instance of the Tory party no longer being on the side of people’s rights? There are no more rights. There is no longer a right to social security, legal aid or access to employment tribunals. The Conservative party is becoming much more authoritarian and Labour Members do not like it. It is no longer the party of rights. It used to have a fine tradition of rights, but that is disappearing.
I must move on.
The code of practice on picketing, which is already followed without difficulty by many unions, requires the appointment of a picket supervisor. The Bill will make that a statutory obligation. It does not add any new requirement that is not already in the code. The supervisor must either attend the picket line or be readily contactable by the union and the police and able to attend at short notice, and he or she must wear an armband or other means to identify them in order to ensure that picketing is peaceful and lawful.
In addition, we consulted over the summer on other measures to tackle wider intimidation. The consultation closed last Wednesday and we are considering whether the Bill should contain further provisions. We will set out our views on that consultation in due course.
If the Secretary of State is so concerned about being even-handed in how he modernises strike law, why has he ruled out modernising how trade unions communicate and how strike ballots are sent out? Why is he focusing only on more punitive measures?
I assume the hon. Gentleman is referring to e-balloting, but I am concerned about fraud and that the identities of people voting in a secret ballot may be revealed. In fact, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which looked at the use of digital apparatus in elections, also shared those concerns. I do not think it would have been appropriate to suggest such changes.
Let me turn to political funds. The introduction of ballot thresholds will help ensure that unions reflect the will of their whole membership and that the views of every member count. Another way we are going to achieve that is through changes to the way in which political funds are managed.
The Secretary of State discounts e-balloting because of potential fraud. How about considering an amendment to the Bill with regards to balloting in the workplace, where there cannot be any fraud whatsoever? It will be democratised and there will be a huge turnout on every occasion, which is surely what the Secretary of State is seeking to implement.
I have clearly set out my concerns and we propose to make no change to the way in which ballots are carried out.
On political funds, first we will increase transparency on the way in which political funds are spent, helping members to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to contribute. The Bill places a duty on unions to report in greater detail on what annual expenditure over £2,000 is useful, helping members decide whether or not they want to pay into the fund. After all, freedom to choose without having all the facts is no freedom at all.
Secondly, unions will need to obtain the active consent of members to deduct a political levy. At present, members can, in theory, opt out, although many unions do not even tell new members that the political levy exists, let alone about them having to pay for it.
Labour is in hock to and funded by the unions—[Interruption.] That is why Labour Members are making howls of protest. Is not it a fundamental right that people’s pay packets should not be interfered with, without them knowing exactly where the money and the dues are going? That is what this Bill seeks to achieve.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That money belongs to hard-working people. They should know exactly what is being done with it and that is at the heart of the proposal. In fact, in Northern Ireland, members have had an active choice for almost 90 years and their unions are still perfectly able to operate and to organise. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Prison Officers Association still have more than four fifths of their members choosing to opt in. All we are asking is for a simple tick box on the same membership forms in England, Scotland and Wales.
My union, Community, has used the political fund to challenge Governments of all colours and even took the last Labour Government to the European Court and won on behalf of its members. Does the Secretary of State accept that the political fund is not just about putting money into political parties, but about holding the Government of the day to account?
I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with the changes, because they support union members and will introduce more transparency. They will still allow the unions to raise the funds, but they will just have to be more open about how they do so and what they do with them.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said earlier that when unions and employers work together, results are achieved. That being the case, why does the Secretary of State want to overrule agreements made freely between unions and public sector employees about the appropriate amount of time that should be spent on union duties?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a simple matter of transparency? If people want to give money to the Labour party as union members, they should choose to do so. Indeed, if they do not actually choose to do so, the danger is that the unions are arguably guilty of mis-selling, because people do not know what they are buying when they join up for membership of a trade union.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving away again. If this is about transparency, what about the hedge funds and big business, which donate fortunes to the Conservative party? Will legislation be put in place covering the need to ask shareholders and the workforce whether such donations can be made? That’s transparency.
I think the hon. Gentleman actually agrees with the rules that apply to businesses. When businesses make a political donation to whatever party, they rightly have to declare it and must be open and transparent. They often need the votes of their shareholders. These rules are absolutely consistent with that. The hon. Gentleman is surely not saying that there should be no transparency here.
The hon. Lady will know that businesses or individuals have to declare it when they make a donation. It has to be transparent. All businesses have to declare their donations and will often have to get the permission of their shareholders. In public companies, those shareholders will receive a vote. These changes are entirely consistent with that. We are saying that if someone is a union member, they should know that some of their money is going towards political purposes. It should be open and transparent. That is not the case in England, Scotland and Wales. It is the case in Northern Ireland. If it works in Northern Ireland, it can work in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Turning to check-off, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has announced, a proposed amendment to the Bill will seek to end the practice by which union subscriptions are processed through payroll in public sector organisations. The so-called check-off system was created in a time before direct debits existed and serves no purpose in the modern workplace. It has already been abolished across Whitehall. The amendment will extend this modernising step to the rest of the taxpayer-funded workforce.
I respect Britain’s working men and women. I believe that they are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves whether they wish to support their union’s political activity and they are perfectly capable of paying their union subscriptions themselves. To suggest otherwise is to say that Britain’s union members are too lazy to set up a direct debit or too stupid to make a decision about politics. That is patronising in the extreme.
In the past few weeks, the Labour party has shown that it is possible actively to recruit hundreds of thousands of members to a support a cause and that it is possible to get hard-working men and women to hand over their hard-earned money to back an idea that they believe in. Not one of Labour’s new members signed up by mistake because they failed to tick a box. Not one of the registered supporters was required to pay their £3 through their employer’s payroll. Every new recruit to the Labour party made an active decision to participate. If the party born of the unions can achieve that, surely the unions themselves can do the same.
Will the Secretary of State explain why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is pursuing auto-enrolment for contributions to pension funds?
This is an issue about check-off, not auto-enrolment. Several Whitehall Departments have already begun the process to remove check-off, and now we will apply that process to all parts of the public sector.
On facility time, the Government have a moral duty to ensure that taxpayers get maximum value for money out of every penny they provide the Exchequer. With that in mind, it is hard to justify paying a public servant to do a vital job, only for them to spend their day working for another employer. Yet this is exactly what is happening in the public sector today.
Before I came to this place, I was a public sector worker—a home help—and an elected trade union official for a public service, after more than 200,000 members voted for me, and I can tell the Secretary of State that the work I did saved my local authority 10 times what I was paid in facility time. Does he agree that the Bill is anti-business and anti-working practice and that most employers that have trade unions recognise their value?
Is it not an outrage that union officials can conduct union business on public time? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the first year of the Government’s controls on facility time in the civil service has seen a saving of £17 million?
I should emphasise that point: we are saving £17 million a year because of the transparency we have introduced into the civil service. It will no doubt have a similar impact on the rest of the public sector.
There are nurses, teachers and other public servants being paid a salary by the taxpayer while working for their union under the banner of facility time. There is no transparency around how much time they spend on union work and no controls in place to ensure that the taxpayer is getting value for money. It is a situation that most ordinary Britons, including many dedicated public servants I have spoken to, find absolutely baffling. That is why civil service Departments are already required to publish information about the use of facility time by their staff. The Bill allows the Government to make regulations extending that to all public sector employers. It will include information about an employer’s spending on trade union duties and activities and about how many of its union representatives spend a specified percentage of their time on their union role. We have already made considerable savings for the taxpayer by requiring Departments to publish this information, as we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey). However, if transparency alone does not lead to further savings, the Bill also grants Ministers the power to set a cap on the time and money spent on facility time.
Will the Secretary of State agree with one of his own donors, JCB, which has people in facility full-time to encourage positive industrial relations? If it is good enough for the private sector, surely it is good enough for our public sector.
Why have the Government not consulted the devolved Administrations and local authorities across the UK about facility time? They would tell him about its benefits, because these employers and organisations see the benefits of facility time.
I am a bit baffled by the hon. Gentleman’s question because there are three consultations that relate to the Bill. The main consultation is a nine-week consultation and it is open to every stakeholder in the United Kingdom, including those in Scotland.
Finally, the Bill enhances the role of the certification officer—a role that has served workers, unions and employers well over the past 40 years. It equips the certification officer with appropriate new powers for a modern regulator, such as allowing investigations to begin based on information from a variety of sources, without having to wait for specific complaints from union members.
For the first time, the certification officer will have the ability to impose financial penalties on unions that do not comply with statutory requirements—the very requirements that Parliament has deemed necessary. The Bill passes the cost of that regulation on to the unions. That is entirely in line with modern best practice. It is why banks fund the Financial Conduct Authority and why utility regulators are paid for by utility firms.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. I understand what he is trying to do with the Bill, but it makes some of us rather uneasy. That is true of the provisions on the certification officer who, hitherto, has been seen by both sides—I speak as someone who was a partner in a law firm with 1,000 employees, so I do know a bit about this—as a neutral arbiter or referee. The Bill politicises the role and, to the trade union side, appears to put the certification officer on one side of the divide, rather than keeping them as a neutral arbiter.
The hon. Gentleman should be assured that if that were the case, we would not have brought these changes forward. The certification officer’s role remains that of a neutral regulator, independent of Government—that will not change. What will change is the transparency, some of the powers that the officer has to carry out their duties and the way the officer is paid for. Just like other regulators, they will be paid for by the people they regulate and be independent.
In conclusion, in June 1966, Prime Minister Harold Wilson stood at this Dispatch Box and called union leaders of the day
“politically motivated men who…failed to secure acceptance of their views by the British electorate, but who are…forcing great hardship on the members of the union and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation.”—[Official Report, 20 June 1966; Vol. 730, c. 42-43.]
Since then, successive reforms have helped to modernise the union movement. Now, it is time to take the next step: to embrace the transparency that modern society demands of business and politics; to embrace the democracy that is at the heart of what makes Britain great; and to focus on the needs and demands of union members, rather than the views and ambitions of union leaders.
In our manifesto, we pledged to deliver further union reforms, and at the general election, that manifesto secured the clear acceptance of the British people. This is not about the Government versus the unions or the workers versus the bosses. It is about creating a modern legislative framework for modern industrial relations; about making unions partners in the workplace; and about ensuring that a handful of militants cannot force great hardship on their members and on the public, or endanger the economic welfare of the nation.
I started today by talking about how unions were instrumental in consigning the dark satanic mills to the history books, but the workplace of the 21st century is very different from that of the 18th century. The way in which union members work has changed. Now, it is time for the way in which trade unions work to change too. The Bill will make that change happen, and I commend it to the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before we proceed with this important debate, I wonder whether you will clarify the rules regarding Members declaring their interests. There have been many interventions by Members who have received significant donations from or are paid by trade unions. As the debate proceeds, people who are watching our proceedings will want to know the reason why people are taking part.
There should be no requirement for clarification because the hon. Gentleman is an experienced denizen of this House. He will know that there is an opportunity to declare in the register any relevant interests, and that it is the responsibility of each Member to declare in the way that he or she thinks is necessary for the House to be informed.
I call the shadow Secretary of State, Angela Eagle.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Since reference has been made to the funding of political parties, should Government Members who have a shareholding in a hedge fund or a company that has supplied resources to the Conservative party also make a declaration?
I fear that an undesirable trend has been started by the hon. Gentleman, no doubt with great innocence of public purpose, but we will not persist further. I stand by what I have said: the opportunity exists to make a declaration in the register, and Members must declare as they think appropriate, if and when they come to speak in the Chamber. There is nothing new about that; it is well established. I call Angela Eagle.
Third time lucky, Mr Speaker.
I thank the Secretary of State for his gracious welcome, and especially for the timing of today’s Second Reading debate on this Bill, which he has arranged for maximum convenience. I hope he will continue to be so accommodating as we go forward and I oppose him from the Dispatch Box.
Let me begin by drawing the attention of the House to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests which, in the interests of transparency, I declared earlier than was technically necessary. I was especially pleased to win the nominations of Unison, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, the Communication Workers Union, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and the recommendation of Unite in the recent contest to be deputy leader of the Labour party—hon. Members can see where that got me. As the register shows, my campaign was supported by donations in cash and kind from some of the unions affiliated to the Labour party.
I also want to make a second declaration: I am a lifelong and proud trade unionist. I believe in social partnership at work, and that the right of trade unions to exist and represent their members at work is a key liberty in any democracy. I am dismayed that we have a Government who believe in attacking trade unions, rather than working with them in the spirit of social partnership to improve economic efficiency and productivity in our country.
My hon. Friend will know that in recent years, the average trade unionist has been on strike for one day in 15 years. In sharp contrast, the export of goods last month was down to its lowest level since 2010. Does she agree that the focus should be on collaboration across industry and trade unions to raise productivity and wages, whereas the Bill will get people on the streets and force conflict?
May I declare that I am a proud trade unionist and was a full-time trade union official for more than 10 years? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill’s real agenda is to stop public sector workers speaking out against this Government’s attacks on their pay and conditions?
It is impossible not to agree with my hon. Friend, and it saddens me beyond words that we are here today dealing with the most significant sustained and partisan attack on 6 million trade union members and their workplace organisations that we have seen in this country in the past 30 years. With the number of days lost to strike action down 90% in the past 20 years, there is no need whatsoever to employ the law in this draconian way.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her new position. She says, rightly, that the number of days lost to strikes in the UK is at its lowest for 20 years. It is even more significant than that: we lose fewer days to strike action in the UK today than we did during the second world war. There is no problem here that needs fixing.
My message is that the Mayor should start doing his job and help to respond to the dispute.
There is no necessity to employ the law in this draconian way, especially when this country already has the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the trade group for the human resources sector, has criticised the Bill as an “outdated response” to today’s challenges, commenting that the
“Government proposals seem to be targeting yesterday’s problem instead of addressing the reality of modern workplaces”.
Does the hon. Lady not find it amazing that 99% of the time the Conservatives go on about regulation and red tape in business and the workplace? What are they trying to do now but introduce regulation and red tape unseen in Germany, Norway or other major economies of Europe? This is just a symptom of low-pay Britain.
I agree with my hon. Friend that trade unions are central to democracy and that we already have some of the most restrictive trade union legislation in the world—and the Bill will make it worse. Does she agree that the Government’s proposals are a threat to the security of our country because they threaten democracy?
I declare my interests: I am sponsored by trade unions—the cleanest money in British politics and far cleaner than on the other side of the House. Does my hon. Friend agree that on Sky News yesterday the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) described elements of the Bill as like something out of Franco’s dictatorship?
I declare an interest: I am a proud member of Unite the union and I have been since the miners’ strike. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is remarkable that 77% of the public believe that trade unions defend important aspects of workers’ rights and that we need them?
It is wise to remember that trade unions defend not only their own members. Over the years, trade unions have created a process that has given us holidays, weekends and reasonable working hours. It is right that the benefits that trade unions bring to our society are recognised and extended to those who are not members of trade unions but happen to be at work. Any attack on those rights that weakens those powers threatens the progress made over many years in democracy at work.
My hon. Friend mentioned the CIPD, and it is not only the usual suspects who oppose this Bill—there are some unlikely bedfellows because the Bill goes beyond party politics. As we have heard, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) called it redolent of Franco’s Spain. The Secretary of State pooh-poohed Vince Cable, the former Business Secretary, for calling it “vindictive”. A letter has been signed by 100 academics, mostly from business schools which are not usually seen as hotbeds of radicalism in our country. Will independent-minded Conservatives join us and our new leader in the Lobby tonight to oppose this draconian legislation?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) on her promotion. She works hard in the north-west.
It is interesting to note that the new shadow Chancellor has told trade unionists:
“We will support all demonstrations in Parliament or on the picket line”—
against the Bill—
“We will be with you at every stage. It is not often you have heard that from a Labour MP but you are hearing it now.”
Does the shadow Business Secretary agree with that?
I agree with the right to demonstrate. I thought we were living in a free country.
The Bill is draconian, vindictive and counterproductive. It is:
“very provocative, highly ideological and has no evidence base at all”.
Those are not my words; they are the words of Vince Cable, the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor as Business Secretary in the previous Government. He has a very revealing insight into the mindset of the Conservative party, the people he was in coalition with for five years, which has concocted the Bill.
“When we were in government, the Tories were constantly pressing for more aggressive trade union legislation of the type we see…They see the trade unions and the Labour party as the enemy. The question then is how do you weaken them? That is their starting point.”
This is the prism through which we have to see the proposals before us today. Forget the blabber from the Secretary of State; this is the prism through which we have to judge these proposals.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on her elevation.
The Bill comes straight out of the right-wing playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council. As Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker did exactly the same thing in 2011 and put industrial relations back in that state for a generation. Does my hon. Friend not agree?
More than that, I think the slightly shifty looks on the faces of many Government Members demonstrate that they know they have been found out. They have been rumbled.
It is abundantly clear that, whatever protestations we may have to the contrary, Vince Cable’s analysis explains what is really going on with this disgraceful piece of proposed legislation. Perhaps that is why so few people will defend it. Even Government Ministers will not defend it in public, as this tweet from “Murnaghan” revealed on Sunday:
“We asked the Government and the @Conservatives for an interview with any Minister/MP to defend the Trade Union Bill. No one was available.”
They do not want to be questioned about it. Like all authoritarians, they just want do it as quickly as possible and brook no dissent.
The right to be part of a trade union to campaign for protection at work is a fundamental socioeconomic right. It is enshrined in the UN’s universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights.
No. I have given way a lot of times and I am in the middle of the peroration.
Before I was so rudely interrupted, I was just about to say that the Bill rides roughshod over that right. It threatens the basic options that those at work have to safeguard their pay and conditions by standing together to win improvements. Liberty, Amnesty and the British Institute of Human Rights have all said that the Bill’s purpose is to
“undermine the rights of all working people”
and amounts to a
“major attack on civil liberties in the UK.”
That warning should not be dismissed lightly by the Conservative party. Workers’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are all undermined by the Bill. For example, the requirement forcing workers to disclose media comments to the authorities a week in advance or face a fine and the requirement under clause 9 for picket supervisors to register with the police and wear identifying badges are a dangerous attack on basic liberties that would not be tolerated by the Conservative party if they were imposed on any other section of society.
Remember that it is now known that thousands of people in the building trade have had their livelihoods taken away and their lives ruined by illegal employer blacklisting, a scandal that this Government have failed either to pursue or remedy. The Bill has been criticised for being OTT, with parts of it resembling the dictatorship of General Franco. Those are not my words, either, but the words of that noted Marxist agitator, the Conservative right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis).
That sinister intent needs to be added to other attempts by the Government to curb dissent in our country today. They have restricted access to justice by imposing fees to access the courts, which are causing the innocent to plead guilty. They want to scrap the Human Rights Act, which safeguards our basic freedoms. Their commitment to transparency in Government is in tatters with their plans to limit freedom of information powers. They have slashed legal aid and introduced employment tribunal fees, which deny women the chance to sue for equal pay or defend themselves against sexual harassment. They have limited the scope for judicial review and used their gagging law to bully charities into silence at the election, and now they are trying to silence the trade union voice through a tax on the existence of political funds, which finance general non-party political campaigning as well as the Labour party.
This is another gagging Bill, and those of us who care for the health of our democracy and civil society are united in opposing it. Clauses 2 and 3 are deliberately designed to undermine the bargaining power of trade unions by requiring minimum turnouts, thresholds and support before a strike ballot is valid. The new proposals demand a mandate for unions that breaks the democratic conventions of our society by counting votes not cast as essentially no votes.
More than half of the Cabinet would not have met that arbitrary threshold had it applied to their election to this House in May. Why do the Government have different standards for democracy and trade unions than anywhere else in our society? Clause 3 ensures that the 40% level of support restriction will apply to a much bigger list of sectors than the internationally recognised definition of “essential services” and, ominously, allows sectors to be added by secondary legislation that is as yet unpublished. From listening to the Secretary of State, it appears that the Government do not intend to publish it until the Bill is in the Lords.
If the Government are so worried about participation in ballots, why do they not allow e-balloting and secure workplace balloting, which are used routinely by many organisations? Clauses 4 to 6 might more usefully be described as the clauses that smother unions in “blue tape” and the hypocrisy of the Business Secretary in this respect is staggering. In July, he launched his drive to cut red tape, yet when it comes to unions he is increasing the powers of the certification officer and deliberately placing additional information and reporting burdens on unions. Not content with doing that, the Government, through clauses 12 and 13, are reducing the ability of trade union officials to do their jobs with the introduction of new powers to restrict facility time.
It is not hard to come to the conclusion that these proposals have been written to be as unworkable and difficult to comply with as possible. They also create many more opportunities for ballots to be challenged by employers for minor technical reasons. Again, it is clear that the increased risk of employer challenge is an integral part of the Government’s intentions.
Does my hon. Friend recall that throughout the 1980s the working people of this country were lectured about giving managers the right to manage? Management in this country has agreed with trade unions at a local level who should have facility time and what they should do with it. Why should the Government have to intervene to destroy that partnership, which has worked for the benefit of all concerned?
Rather like Don Quixote, they are tilting at windmills, and legislating for an absurd caricature of the reality of industrial relations up and down the country, for partisan purposes. That is why we oppose the Bill.
Clauses 7 and 8 extend the notice requirements for any industrial actions and restrict the effect of any ballot for strike action to four months. These clauses are designed to narrow the effectiveness of any industrial action, even if it has reached the much higher requirements of turnout and support required for clauses 2 and 3. There is no sign of any evidence that could justify these changes and no sign of a clamour for employers to change the existing system. Indeed, these changes may intensify industrial dispute during the four-month period, and make things worse.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me—unlike the Secretary of State—to intervene. Everyone who heard the Secretary of State’s contribution will know that he cited the example of Northern Ireland, stating that what was good enough for Northern Ireland was good enough for the rest of the country. In particular regard to the political fund, trade union members in Northern Ireland have had to opt in, and that has been the case for over 60 years. Will the hon. Lady clarify what percentage of trade union members in Northern Ireland have opted in to the political fund?
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady. I have enormous regard for her and I congratulate her most sincerely on her appointment to the shadow Front Bench. The answer to the question—I am sure it must have slipped her mind, as she always does her homework before contributing to debates—is 39%. Let me add that it could be to do with the fact that the Labour party never fielded candidates in Northern Ireland. Perhaps under the new leadership, the party might think of rivalling its buddies in Sinn Féin.
We will have to have a chat about whether the Labour party should organise in Northern Ireland. It is a long-standing issue within our party. I would be more than happy to talk to the hon. Lady about that, but I suspect Madam Deputy Speaker would stop me from doing so over the Dispatch Box.
We all know that this Government—barely with a majority—increasingly behave in a grossly partisan way, whether it is through individual electoral registration designed to disfranchise voters, by introducing English votes for English laws, or now by making changes to party funding to try to hobble the main Opposition.
That is something I thought I would be unable to do; I am grateful that my persistence has paid off. The motivation behind this Bill has nothing to do with the things that the hon. Lady has just mentioned; it is to do with protecting and helping ordinary hard-working people to go about their day-to-day lives and their work unimpeded by strike action, which sometimes has turnouts as low as 16%. It is reasonable to protect them, and I ask the hon. Lady to support that
Disillusion has set in very quickly, I am afraid, with the hon. Gentleman. All I can say is that I am a long-standing member of a trade union, so I know many trade unionists, and I know that very few of them would contemplate being silly enough to have industrial action with very low turnouts and very little support, because that simply does not work.
The Prime Minister used to say he wanted to reform party funding and would limit donations from all sources. Now, however, instead of addressing the big money in politics—and the big issues that are causing disillusionment from politics generally—with millionaire hedge-fund donors being treated to lunches and dinners with the Cabinet, this Government are, outrageously, focusing on curbing only trade union donations. There is an important issue about big money in politics, but it needs to be dealt with on a cross-party basis.
As I was saying, that issue needs to be dealt with on a cross-party basis to change our political system fairly, and not just with the partisan interests of the Tory party in mind.
As the Regulatory Policy Committee has noted, these proposals for changes are rushed, and have had nowhere near the level of consultation that they deserve. The committee has described the impact assessment as “not fit for purpose”. There are serious questions about whether this Bill is compatible with the international legal obligations of the United Kingdom, as a member of the International Labour Organisation. The ILO has already criticised the UK on a number of occasions for its constraints on the right to strike, and the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has called for more, not less, trade union freedom in Britain.
I am winding up now.
Given the serious questions about its effect on fundamental rights, the Bill may be open to legal challenge on a number of fronts, including its impact on the devolution settlements, because it covers areas such as health and education that are clearly devolved. The Welsh Government, who have a substantially better record of working constructively with trade unions than this Administration, have objected to the proposals in strong terms, and are considering whether a legislative consent motion might be appropriate.
The Bill is a divisive piece of legislation which undermines the basic protections that trade unions provide for people at work. This is a partisan attack to undermine those unions, and the Labour party, but it will have substantial implications for more than 6 million workers by undermining unions’ ability to stop harassment in the workplace and ensure that the basic health and safety of workers is maintained. The Government are pushing through an agenda of attacking civil society, intimidating charities, threatening basic civil liberties, and undermining access to justice. These draconian measures must be stopped, and I urge the House to deny the Bill a Second Reading.
I rise to support the Bill, but also to make a key recommendation to the Secretary of State for a later amendment on which I hope to speak in Committee.
In the time available to me today, I want to explain why I believe in the importance of workplace representation, and why faith needs to be built into it so that it can expand to help and support workers and move away from being a political plaything. I am a founding member of Unite, by virtue of the merger that caused my Manufacturing, Science and Finance union to become first Amicus and then Unite. I eventually resigned from Unite, because it stopped being a trade union and became a financial cash cow enabling misguided Marxists at the top to play with their members’ lives for their own political fun and games.
A trade union needs to be about much more than just strikes over pay, or Labour party politics. It should be proud of the achievements that it helped to bring about in health and safety law, and of the work that brilliant and dedicated shop stewards do to improve the wellbeing of their members. As a young worker some years ago, I was victimised in the workplace, and there was no union to turn to. I learnt a lot from that. Equally, I have seen shop stewards do fantastic work for those who have faced bullying and victimisation in the workplace. It is often the shop stewards who provide the best example of trade unionism—despite those at the top—but the common factor is frequently their lack of political ambitions, and it is political ambitions that have poisoned the workplace.
Let us consider Grangemouth. Where was the collective bargaining then? There was an attempt to stitch up a Labour selection process caused by the violent actions of a Labour MP in Westminster who was expelled, while all the time the MP’s constituents and the union’s members were left to be exploited and have their pensions destroyed by an unsympathetic employer whom no one stood up to until it was too late.
As in the 1970s, today's unions use hard-working people, through either their money or their work, to try to cause pain to the democratically elected Government because they do not like the verdict of the people. That is a twisted abuse of trade unionism, in which the workers are merely pawns in a wider political game played by some power-crazed leaders whose purpose is usually to disrupt not only the Government but the leadership of the Opposition, against most of its MPs’ will. They always want to call for strikes rather than sensible negotiations, even through those of us who have had normal backgrounds like everyone else, regardless of our party. [Interruption.] Well, I went to a comprehensive school. I know that Labour Members’ new leader went to a public school, but I did not.
Even a founding member of the Labour movement, Robert Blatchford, said:
“A strike is at best a bitter, a painful and a costly thing and no substitute for political action.”
Trade unionism did not start like that. By 1868, the many trade unions had formed the TUC, which had financial plans for sickness, accident and death payments based on contributions—literally the first social security. In his book “Speak for Britain”, Martin Pugh commented:
“Prudent management of union funds won approval from contemporary politicians, but was criticised by socialists”.
He went on to say:
“This was unfair as the Victorian TUC effectively pioneered a political role for workingmen.”
In 1885, with £4 million in the bank, the TUC hesitated in funding 95 working-class MPs as it felt bound to be cautious about introducing political divisions in order properly and honestly to represent all working men. Pugh says:
“They felt incurably suspicious about overtures made by small unrepresentative socialist societies anxious to milk their funds to promote hopeless candidatures.”
But today their funds built by hard-working people have been used for just that.
It is right that the Bill brings in protection for hard-working people who want proper workplace representation rather than just a cash cow to be milked by union leaders for their own political game.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s history lesson, but it is completely wrong because the early trade unions supported the Liberal party rather than socialist candidates. Is he aware that many trade unions have political funds but donate not a single penny to the Labour party? The Minister spoke of union members not having a say, but a ballot on political funds has to be held every 10 years. People can opt out of paying the political levy at any time during their membership.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I will talk later about the opt-in and the opt-out, and I think he will listen carefully to what I have to say.
Without employer faith in trade unions we will end up in the situation that culminated in the Grunwick dispute of the late 1970s. I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for whom I have great respect, will comment on that dispute because I will be fascinated to hear his account of it.
If ever there was an example of where proper, pragmatic workplace representation was needed on both sides, it was in that dispute. There can be no doubt that George Ward exploited his workers and sacked those who spoke out. The problem was that the union movement had become so toxic in the 1970s that the dispute led to a digging in of the trenches and became a symbolic political argument rather than being based on the genuine concerns of workers who were treated like his property and had to work in stifling conditions, without canteen facilities, or the ability to turn down forced overtime.
At the heart of the Grunwick dispute was a bad employer, supported by the Conservative party, who refused to give recognition to the trade union, despite a court of inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Scarman recommending recognition and reinstatement. That would not now happen because a Labour Government legislated to introduce the right to trade union recognition.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, because I am coming on to that point. I was about to say that I do not agree with the position my party’s leadership took then, nor the praise that was given to the strike breakers, but I give this warning: my opinions are couched in a life after the trade union reform the hon. Gentleman mentions. I was literally in nappies when the Grunwick affair took place. What it shows is that it is necessary to make sure that relations between workers who need support and the trade unions do not become part of a proxy political battle. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for workplace representation, and I welcome that that rule was brought in.
The popularity among the public and leading politicians of strike breakers was a direct consequence of trade union militancy, using the power of strike action as a political tool, even under a rather left-wing Labour Government, rather than a tool of grievance, so that when strike action was genuinely needed—as I believe it was in that case—the cause and effect were lost in a wider political argument.
We must take this example into consideration, because there is a difference between a public and a private sector dispute. The free market dictates that private companies exist according to supply and demand: if the company sinks, the market will reshape and another company will fill the void, whereas the state is solely responsible for the delivery of key public services. When conditions in the private sector are so bad that a strike has been called, the striking workers will weigh up the consequences to their ongoing conditions. In comparison, a public sector striker will go back to work having lost the day’s pay they were on strike for. They will not face a salary drop, probably will still get a pay rise and will have a very good pension. That is not the case in the private sector, where it can mean job losses, unresolved disputes and sometimes worse pay than at the start. After the general strike of 1926, the miners’ pay was worse than at the start. Those are heavy considerations for those in the private sector taking strike action, but those in the public sector do not have to worry about them. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to reconsider the proposals in the Bill to allow private sector companies to employ agency workers during strikes. There are key differences between the services provided by the private and public sectors, and that should be recognised in the Bill.
Public services are paid for by the taxpayer, and they often have terms and conditions of employment beyond the dreams of those working in the private sector. When those in the public sector strike, those in the private sector—whose taxes pay the wages of those on strike—often lose pay themselves owing to a lack of transport or childcare. That is why it is right that thresholds should be set. Such thresholds would not have made a difference to the recent tube strikes, but they would clearly indicate the strength of feeling involved. With the current ease of striking, and the consequences to members’ livelihoods that that involves, it is no wonder that only 14% of those working in the private sector take up union membership, compared with more than 50% of those in the public sector.
No, I want to crack on. I have given way a couple of times, and a lot of people want to speak.
Above all else, the Bill will start the process of restoring faith in the trade union movement so that those in the private sector can feel that they have workplace representation without a militant tendency that could destroy their livelihoods or funding a political party that they do not agree with.
That brings me on to the question of opting into the political levy. How can unions offer independent workplace representation to people who desperately need their help if they are tied to the Labour party by funding it automatically? I accept that this does not apply to every union, but hard-working people’s fees are often used in that way.
As I mentioned earlier, I was a founding member of Unite. I wanted to opt out of the political levy, but it was no easy task, with advice in short supply on how to do it. In the busy workplace, I never got to action this, as my requests were always forgotten or complicated. I helped to support the 2010 general election campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who stood against a Unite-funded lackey. That cannot be right, and it clearly goes against my political beliefs.
The opt-in will need to be closely monitored. Affiliated votes in the Labour leadership campaign accounted for about 200,000 of 4.3 million trade unionists. If 1 million people suddenly opt into the political levy, something is going on. To be blunt, I believe that that could involve intimidation. Such tactics were used only last week in my constituency. Members of a protest group called the People’s NHS were knocking on doors and telling my constituents that the Government were selling off the NHS to an American company via the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. We all know that that is tosh, especially as on 8 July 2015 the European Parliament voted by 436 to 241 to exclude public services from the scope of the TTIP deal. So these people knocking on the doors of the elderly and vulnerable in my constituency are scaremongering with lies. But who are they? Well guess what—they are funded by Unite. The trouble is, having parachuted a Unite candidate from London into my seat at the general election—giving me the largest ever Tory vote in my seat, for which I am grateful—the union is now trying to lie to people to get its own way.
But it is worse than that. My constituents know me well, so they are quick to contact me with their concerns. One constituent contacted me to say that she felt “intimidated to agree” and that people
“had no choice but to put up their propaganda signs, because they were told everyone else was doing it and they would be the only ones who didn’t”.
This constituent even found comments in her name reported in the local press, which she did not agree to. Not only are those people nasty, ill-informed bullies and a disgrace to trade unionism, but to top it all they then tried to get my constituents to join Unite. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have to bring in mechanisms to ensure that the opt-in is not abused by union thugs bullying people into signing up. We received warnings about this only last weekend from the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who fears a return to the bullying and intimidation of the 1980s in the labour movement.
I believe that people should have workplace representation. I class myself as a trade unionist because I believe that a union of people in a trade can negotiate better with someone representing them as a group, so that those who simply do not have it in them to stand up and speak out publicly can have representatives who will. The TUC in the 19th century recognised this and wanted to support working-class MPs to enable them to represent workers politically. That is a long way from today’s practice of using members for their leadership’s own political games. The public are tired of it, and these reforms are now being demanded. I believe that there needs to be a distinction between the public and private sectors, but fundamentally I want all workers to be properly represented in the workplace, independent of party politics.
I rise in total opposition to this Bill. Let me declare my Unison membership and my 20 years of trade union activity before my election. In my maiden speech in this place, I said:
“The trade union movement gave me a political education and the confidence to stand for election, and I know that this experience is shared with other Members who did not have a privileged start in life.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 832.]
I will never be ashamed of being a trade unionist.
The irony of this Bill is that it comes from a political party that believes the answer in today’s world is to deregulate—except in the case of the trade union movement and trade union law. The unions are subjected to heavy regulation, which the Tories bitterly oppose in other circumstances. This is a timely reminder that this Government fear the trade union movement and that this Government know they can be defeated. That is because the trade union movement is the largest group in civic society that stands up against exploitation. The Bill will lead to a deterioration of good industrial relations and it has no support within public opinion. It is designed to reduce civil liberties and human rights.
The Bill also displays a remarkable ignorance—we have heard about that from several speakers already. The Government attempt to justify this Bill by citing industrial action that actually meets the thresholds. The Bill seeks to introduce the 40% rule, but I think it is dangerous for this Government to introduce that rule because the last time a Government tried to introduce such a rule, which affected Scotland, they had a low majority and they ended up being kicked out in a vote of no confidence. We will have the situation where dead people will be described as “not supporting” industrial action. That is why the thresholds are dangerous.
Yes, I agree. In Scotland, at the last election, the Conservative party received its lowest share of the vote since universal suffrage began. If the Government are going to introduce thresholds, they need to consider securing workplace balloting, which could be easily sorted out by Electoral Reform Services, or online voting. Political parties use online voting when selecting their candidates, so the suggestion that there might be fraud is nonsense.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that some of the rhetoric we have heard from Conservative Members is offensive to public sector workers, who do not take strike action at the drop of a hat and who are dedicated public servants? I am talking about home carers, cleaners, cooks, social workers, bin men, bin women and all those other people who safeguard our public services today. They do not take strike action at the drop of a hat, and it is disgraceful that Conservative Members have been using this rhetoric today.
I agree completely, and I will give some examples confirming what the hon. Lady describes. Introducing online voting and securing workplace balloting would be modernisation. We keep hearing about modernisation from Conservative Members, and we will come on to deal with it.
The other danger about thresholds relates to issues of equality and, in particular, gender equality. We know that in some male-dominated trade union workplaces women who have young families are affected when there are shift changes, and thresholds would have an impact on the rights of women workers to pursue industrial action on that basis. That happened recently in the case of a fire brigade control service in Essex.
We have heard rhetoric from Conservative Members about how the Bill will help hard-working people go about their business. Does the hon. Gentleman not therefore find it ironic that curtailing the rights of working people to organise collectively through trade unions, which is what this Bill is designed to do, will stop those people arguing for and bargaining for better working conditions?
Yes, I do. The Bill is designed to continue austerity—that is exactly what it is about. It is about trying to curb the largest organisation in the UK that is campaigning against austerity.
These issues of gender equality are very important, because recent trends have shown that what is on the increase is pregnant workers being dismissed and women workers coming back from maternity leave being made redundant. That is a recent phenomenon and this Parliament will need to address it. The Government have not taken any of those issues into account. As we heard earlier, 270 Conservative Members would not have been elected if those thresholds had been in place.
There is also the issue of the deadlines on ballot times. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say that industrial action would not be curbed, but in actual fact it could be. Let us say that a large employer issued a 45-day redundancy notice. If the trade unions have to give 14 days’ notice of a ballot and 14 days’ notice to take industrial action, it will be very difficult for them to organise themselves within that timeframe, and it could well make industrial action impossible.
We oppose the changes on political funds. This is about not just party politics and attacking the Labour party, but the general campaigning that the trade unions fund as well. I am talking here about equal pay; stronger maternity leave; 50:50 gender representation; and giving money to organisations such as HOPE not hate and other anti-racist organisations, community groups, and international aid organisations such as Justice for Colombia and Medical Aid for Palestine.
On that point, the Bakers Union is campaigning for fair rights for fast food workers, and is trying to increase hourly pay in America from $7 to $15 and in the UK to £10. Does the hon. Gentleman think that this measure is trying to restrict that kind of activity?
That is exactly what it is designed to do. This attack is to weaken the rights of trade union members. When it comes to political funds, it should be up to the trade union members to decide. If members have issues about who trade unions are funding, it is up to them to organise themselves and to take up the matter with their trade unions—just as I always do. When my union funds a campaign that I might not necessarily support, I am told, quite rightly, that it should be up to us to organise.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this area is much regulated at the moment? Not only do union members have to vote every 10 years on whether they want a political fund, but individuals also have a right to opt out of a political fund at any time they want. All the accounts of a political fund must be not only validated by the internal accountants but published. How much more transparency can we get?
Yes, indeed. I think the system is transparent. In my own trade union, we had the choice to fund the affiliated political fund within Unison or the general political fund, or even to opt out of the political fund.
The other danger with this Bill is that it politicises the role of the certification officer. We are also concerned with the new proposals on picketing and providing names. Such measures can only result in a new blacklist. Anyone who is a picket might as well wear two armbands—“union picket” on one arm and “blacklist me” on the other. That sets a very dangerous precedent. It also does not take into account the fact that Scotland and England have different criminal laws. I believe that is why we have heard comparisons with Franco’s regime.
The other concern relates to agency workers who are not supported by the agencies themselves. That can lead only to distrust within a workplace between those who are agency workers and those who work for the employer. Any time an employer asks a trade union about bringing in agency workers, there will immediately be suspicions about what the employer is up to. It is a rogue employers’ charter and the Government must think again on the matter.
I want to talk about check-off and facility time, and the incredible statements we have heard from the Government in that regard. I submitted a written parliamentary question on check-off and received the following answer from the Cabinet Office:
“It is no longer appropriate for public sector employers to carry the administrative burden of providing a check off facility for those trade unions that have not yet modernised their subscription arrangements. Employers are under no obligation to offer this service. There would therefore be no cost associated with an employer not providing this service”.
That shows a lot of ignorance, because what the Government appear not to know—they seem blissfully unaware of this—is that in many instances trade unions pay for check-off and for workers on facility time.
Let me give some examples of the deductions that could be made from a worker’s salary: charities’ give-as-you-earn, season ticket loans, credit union payments, staff associations—under these proposals there can be deductions for staff associations, but not for trade unions—bicycle loans, council tax and rent. Those are just examples of what can be deducted from a worker’s salary, and the Government call removing check-off modernisation! What a ludicrous suggestion.
First, all the examples that the hon. Gentleman has just given involve the employee opting in, rather than opting out, which is exactly what this legislation proposes. Secondly, of the 972 public bodies that do check-off fees, only 213—that is 22%—charge for the service; 78% do it for free.
The point is that they have chosen to provide the service for free. If there was a genuine consultation on this, many public bodies, including the Scottish and Welsh Governments, would say that they are not interested in removing check-off. Indeed, my former employer, Glasgow City Council, has today said that it is not interested and that it will ignore the request. The hon. Gentleman appears to suggest that people join trade unions automatically, but that is not the case. I signed a form and decided to tick my political fund arrangements on that basis.
Our view is that the Government have no right to interfere in the industrial relations of councils, health boards or devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom. Facility time improves industrial relations. It negates issues that would otherwise go to tribunal. If an employer has good facility time arrangements, disciplinary hearings and grievance hearings, for example, are conducted in a timeous fashion. If facility time is interfered with, those timescales will slip. Facility time is a good thing; it is good for industrial relations and it gets things done.
Do the hon. Gentleman’s points not illustrate that this Bill is causing division where there was harmony—between the nations, within organisations, between agency workers and workers, and between management and workers—and that it will therefore undermine productivity, cause conflict and protest and be contrary to its alleged objectives? In fact, it is just an ideological, mean-spirited measure that should be voted down by any sensible person.
Is the hon. Gentleman familiar with what the International Monetary Fund has said about the benefits of collective bargaining when it comes to economic success and prosperity? The Government are clearly either unaware of the IMF’s support for strong trade unions or not interested in having strong trade unions.
I agree, because what has happened to collective bargaining is tragic. In 1979, for example, 81% of workers in Scotland had their pay determined by collective bargaining, but that figure is now 23%. Collective bargaining should be encouraged across the board, because it leads to higher wages.
The Government should be going in the opposite direction. We need stronger trade union rights and stronger employment rights in this country. It cannot be right that an employer can issue a 45-day redundancy notice to a worker. That was one of the big mistakes of the previous Administration. We believe that trade unions have the right to bargain collectively. We believe that this Bill seeks to undermine the great work of the trade union movement. It is a 19th-century solution in a 21st-century world.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this Bill by the British Government is a real threat to the positive working relationships between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Trades Union Congress? The secretary-general of the STUC has said:
“The Westminster Government is essentially arguing, on the basis of an apparent desire to save ‘taxpayers money’ that the Scottish Government”—
a devolved Government in this United Kingdom—
“should not be allowed . . . to promote positive working relationships”.
Should not this Bill just be thrown out, because if we are “better together” it doesn’t bloody well feel like it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The TUC, the STUC and the TUC in Wales are having these discussions. The STUC and the Scottish Government oppose the Bill, and the TUC in Wales and the Welsh Government oppose it. Local authorities oppose it. Health boards oppose it. It has no support whatsoever across the public services.
I speak in support of the Bill but not against the trade union movement or its members. In fact, I hope to work with the Unite union to set up a taskforce for a business, Flowserve in Newark in my constituency, where Unite is representing my constituents powerfully and efficiently. I want to reach out to it in the days to come.
In my own family history, I see the trade union movement at its best—as an important voice for the expression and protection of working people faced by endemic low pay and appalling working conditions. My great-grandfather, James Barrett, was a leader of the general strike in Manchester. He was drawn to trade unionism by the plight of his wife, my great-grandmother, Mary Ridge, whose first husband, a trade unionist before the great war, was blacklisted, unable to work, and forced to emigrate to the United States. He was unable to afford a ticket for both of them, leaving my great-grandmother behind in Salford to look after their children, essentially to rebuild her life, before eventually finding out that her husband had died a broken man in the United States years afterwards. Men and women like these—there are many others in the history of this country—were driven by their concern for the condition of working people they saw around them, the most vulnerable in society. They were, as Harold Wilson liked to say about the Labour party, driven more by Methodism than Marxism.
It is in that spirit that I approach this Bill, asking myself and this House how we can best defend and enrich the rights and the working lives of all people, but particularly the most vulnerable working people in society. The imperative to represent the common good of all working people lies at the heart of this Bill. That is all the more important today, as membership of trade unions continues to decline. At least 79% of the working people of this country are not members of trade unions.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware, I am sure, that a very high percentage of people who are trade union representatives and members are extremely concerned about this Bill’s possible infringement of their right and freedom to assemble, which is guaranteed by article 11 of the European convention on human rights. Whatever he and his colleagues think about it, that was the best decision the Labour party made when it brought it home in the Human Rights Act 1998. Where in this Bill can he point to the guarantee that there will not be an infringement of article 11 of the European convention?
Nothing in this Bill infringes the right to strike. It asks trade union bosses to achieve a higher mandate for those strikes. That can only strengthen the position of those trade union leaders, who will have the power and authority to win a clear mandate from their members.
Let me continue. Today the majority of those in trade unions are not the working poor—53% of members are in professional, associate professional or managerial occupations. Only a minority are in lower skilled, invariably lower-paid occupations, such as caring, leisure, processing, plant and machine work. Today’s trade unions predominantly serve middle-income workers. The figures show that those earning less than £250 a week—roughly the equivalent of a full-time job on the minimum wage—are the least likely to join a trade union. Just 13% of those workers are members, which is a smaller figure than the proportion of those earning more than £1,000 a week, who make up 22% of trade union members.
If I may continue, most working people in lower-skilled, lower-paid roles are not part of trade unions, and it is they who are most deeply impacted by the disruption of strikes, particularly in key public services, including education and transport. It is right that this House rebalances our trade union laws in favour of all working people. It seems entirely reasonable, therefore, that, among other sensible reforms and amendments, we introduce a 50% threshold for ballot turnout and a 40% support threshold for key public services.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be a reasonable man who has misunderstood the Bill. He says that he wants to help workers and defend their rights and that he supports the threshold, but what possible explanation could there be for Government Front Benchers to continue to tell us that they will not support electronic balloting? How can that possibly be reasonable in the 21st century?
Let me continue. Far from diminishing the voice of trade unions, as I said in response to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), achieving the thresholds would increase the legitimacy of trade unions with management and shareholders and in the eyes of the general public. As we politicians know only too well, a strong mandate increases our legitimacy and the power and authority of our actions, and we have heard a lot over the past few days from the trade unions and their leaders about the value of a strong mandate.
As a result of this Bill, there may well be fewer strikes on less substantive matters that are not viewed by the unions’ own members as sufficiently serious to justify putting their employer and thus their job in jeopardy or that seriously inconvenience customers and the general public. Those that do go ahead will have a greater mandate and higher legitimacy, and consequently will need to be taken much more seriously by everybody involved in the negotiation.
I thank my parliamentary neighbour for giving way. He will recall the mass demonstration in his constituency following the unofficial power workers strike, when 5,000 people marched. I spoke at the rally and it concluded a dispute that involved a lot of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Is he aware that those constituents of his who participated would be criminalised by this Bill?
Other Members want to speak, so let me come to the end of my remarks.
The only unions and leaders who need fear these reforms are those who do not believe that they can regularly convince their own members of the veracity of their arguments—those who have essentially lost touch with the high ideals of the founders of the trade union movement. I think back to my ancestor, Mary Ridge. What would she have thought of the union leader who last year called a strike of teachers based on ballots that were years out of date and in which fewer than a quarter of teachers voted? It closed a special school in Newark at which parents, already struggling with the demands of juggling jobs and caring for children with special educational needs, had to take time off work or seek specialist childcare at short notice. What would she have thought of the female city cleaner on a low income trudging home through the streets of London because trade union bosses had taken tube drivers, whose average starting salary is £50,000 a year for 36 hours a week, out on strikes?
I will not give way, because Madam Deputy Speaker wishes me to finish my remarks.
My ancestor would be surprised and ashamed by what some of the current trade union leaders have become.
In conclusion, there is unease among working people in this country about their economic lives and the economic situation around them. Much of that is to do with concentrations of power: the banks, the utility companies, and the housing market favouring existing owners. Organisations such as the CBI, the BBC or monopolistic companies such as BT Openreach speak loudly, but it is unclear whom they represent. Such organisations protect the interests of the privileged few. The Bill must be seen as part of a wider effort to move our economy and our society away from vested interests and the stifling effects of corporatism and back in favour of the common good of all working people in this country.
I draw to the House’s attention my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my membership of the Communication Workers Union.
In no other country in Europe would a mainstream, right-of-centre party bring forward such a Bill. It is an attack upon the trade union movement that may as well be called the dark satanic mills Bill, because even dark satanic mill owners may have hesitated to introduce such measures. The first rule of any legislation should be that it is necessary and tackles a perceived and obvious problem. That cannot be the case when industrial action over the past five years has been the third lowest five-year aggregate period in the history of this country. It cannot be the case that this is a serious issue.
Let me tell Government Members that just as trade union officials, whether leaders, shop stewards or local representatives, resort to industrial action only as a last possible measure, this House should consider legislation only as a last possible measure. I have never heard such a weak argument from a Secretary of State to support a Bill or a paucity of arguments supporting it, many of which seem to say, “We support trade unions and their right to strike,” but the only problem is that they have never supported a single strike in the whole history of the trade union movement.
The right hon. Gentleman’s opening argument is exactly the same as that made by the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who would not take an intervention from me. My counter is that if union action and days lost due to strikes are at their lowest-ever level, how does the right hon. Gentleman explain the 70% increase in days lost due to industrial action in 2014 compared with 2013? Was it down to his union bosses flexing their muscles ahead of a general election?
I suggest that we set a room aside with some crayons and colouring boards and perhaps a “Teletubbies” DVD for those who want to engage in that level of immaturity. We are seeing the lowest level of industrial action practically since records began. The wonder of the past five years is that there has not been more industrial action given the problems that workers have had to go through.
Has my right hon. Friend taken note of the Regulatory Policy Committee’s comment that the Government have singularly failed to justify these measures and restrictions on the right to organise and protest? It has said clearly that no case has been made, so why are they doing this?
I hope I pass the “Teletubbies” hurdle for intellectual input. On the point about the numbers that strike, what consideration does the right hon. Gentleman give to the number of people impacted by strikes? When he was a Minister and subsequently, has that been a consideration in his thoughts about how unions’ right to strike should be regulated?
Of course industrial action has an impact, which is why, as I said, no trade unionist, trade union leader or trade union shop steward would ever contemplate industrial action unless it was as a last resort. When there was a protest in Parliament Square, as there frequently are, I was inconvenienced. The Hull fun run on Sunday was an enormous inconvenience. We do not attack democracy and democratic institutions on the basis that some people are inconvenienced by them. We either accept the right to strike, as the Secretary of State said he did, or we make facetious arguments about its having an effect on other people, in which case, just like Mussolini and Hitler, whose first action it was, we ban free trade unions. But that is not what the Bill is about, as I understand it.
My hon. Friend, a good gas fitter in his time, makes a good point.
The hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) is an exception, but many Government Members do not have sufficient experience of dealing with employers and trade unions and of needing a trade union to defend them. We know that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice was once on a National Union of Journalists picket line in Aberdeen, but I think the Red Gove period did not last very long. I think he is practically alone in the Cabinet in having that experience.
There are many aspects of the Bill that I hope will be dealt with in Committee. It deserves the scrutiny it will get from Opposition Members when its passes through Second Reading—I hope it does not get a Second Reading, but I fear the worst—but its primary purpose is to introduce stringent restrictions on trade unions’ ability to take industrial action, so the first question has to be why. As hon. Members have said, we have gone from an average of 7.2 million days lost to industrial action each year in the ’80s to 647,000 since 2010. That is a spectacular reduction. On average, a unionised British worker will take strike action for one day every 15 years, and the duration of that action is likely to be one day.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is one exception to that? In London, under a leader who sits in this House and who has always refused to meet the trade unions or treat them like human beings, we have had three times as many strikes as during the previous eight years under a Labour Mayor?
I am happy to inform the House that the previous Mayor met the leader of the RMT only once, reportedly called him a gangster and sacked him from the board of Transport for London. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman—and, for all I know, relative—to acknowledge that the reason the Government are bringing forward this serious and, in my view, sensible Bill is that we have too many wildcat strikes, particularly in the transport sector? He began by saying that no other country in Europe would bring forward such proposals. Can I tell him—[Interruption.]
I tell the right hon. Gentleman that not only do many European countries have restrictions and insist on minimum service requirements during strike action, but some countries ban strike action altogether, notably the United States, where 39 out of the 50 states ban mass transit workers from going on strike. He should also know that in Germany, which somebody mentioned earlier, there is a ballot threshold of 75%. These measures are entirely sensible and will prevent the abuse of working people.
I think that could be described as a wildcat intervention. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that the result of this legislation will be more wildcat strikes. Yes, there are other countries where people are not allowed to strike. Postal workers in America, for instance, are not allowed to strike. In this country, prison officers and the police are not allowed to strike. In every single system like that, there is a process of employment relations and a process to air grievances that give a distinctive advantage to those industries in getting a result. According to the Secretary of State, the Bill does not say that there are industries in which strikes should not take place; it is an effort to affect millions of trade unionists and inhibit their right to strike because of a dispute involving a few thousand people at London Underground. That is the truth of the matter.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the description of strikes as “wildcat” is wildly inaccurate, because there is a very detailed process that every organisation must go through in order to allow its members to take industrial action?
That is an extremely important point. Another important statistic is that one in five industrial action ballots does not lead to any industrial action being taken. That tells us, among other things, that trade unionists do not take industrial action when the support is lukewarm.
What is interesting to me is that there is nothing in this or any other Government Bill that is designed to improve industrial relations—nothing like the partnership fund or the union learning fund that we set up to encourage both sides to come together. I tell the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) that, as a junior Minister, I once presented the partnership prize, which was a substantial metal object, to the late, great Bob Crow. Two weeks later, I read in the Evening Standard that there had been a big row between the RMT and London Underground, and that the RMT rep had thrown something at the London Underground manager. I just hoped that it was not the partnership fund award that I had presented.
We took positive action to ensure that the industrial relations climate everywhere across the country was better. There is nothing in the Bill that attempts to do that. As 77 experts in the field said in a letter to The Guardian, the Bill will have the opposite effect. They said that instead of proceeding with this, to use their term, “perverse” Bill,
“the government should be looking more seriously at how to engage and involve the British workforce and its representatives in rebuilding the UK economy and raising productivity”.
I say to Government Members that the Department of Trade and Industry had a review of facility time in 2007. The officials in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills at 1 Victoria Street are exactly the same officials who were at the DTI. There was wide consultation. The outcome was that facility time provided a net advantage to the employer and the country. It was also important in raising productivity—something that this Government have a serious problem with.
With no evidence as to its necessity, the Government have pressed ahead as if this were emergency legislation, scheduling Second Reading four days after the already compressed and laughably short consultation period. The aim seems to be to ensure that our debate coincides with the first day of the Trades Union Congress—a level of immaturity not seen since members of the Bullingdon club thought it would be fun to bare their bottoms outside a convent. Perhaps the Bill was drawn up by the Bullingdon club—perhaps the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip can tell us—and it certainly could not have been constructed more maladroitly if it had been.
The Department from which this Bill emanates is under new management. I suppose we could describe the former Secretary of State as the artist formerly known as Vince, and how we miss the worldly wise maturity of the former Member for Twickenham, who obviously managed to keep the padlock on the playpen in his years at 1 Victoria Street. He described the Bill as
“vindictive, counterproductive and ideologically driven,”
and he has never spoken a truer word in his life.
The central feature of the Bill, which should be disturbing right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches, is that it is unprecedented, undemocratic and indefensible. Why? Because it gives a vote in trade union ballots to those who have, for whatever reason, decided not to cast their vote, and it classifies that vote in every circumstance as a “no” to industrial action. I honestly thought that the Secretary of State would give some examples of where such a measure is used. A golf club perhaps, or a local charity—anything where people who do not vote are classified as voting against. If, in a workplace of 1,000 people 499 workers vote in favour of industrial action and there is not a single vote against, that industrial action would be illegal. In the parlance of this Chamber, the noes would have it, the noes would have it.
The abstainers, the apathetic and the forgetful will have a no vote, as will those who miss the post—I love that as a former postman, but this is the only element of society where the only way that anything can be done is through the post. Communication Workers Union members are grateful, but they realise that this is not just about increasing their workload; it about attacking their rights.
If my hypothetical workplace fell under one of the six areas so far defined as important public services, a 79% yes vote on a 50% turnout would be illegal, as would a 64% yes vote on a 64% turnout. That cannot be defended. Someone could be the most rabid anti-trade union politician in the House—there may be some in the Chamber at the moment—but if their concern is for human rights and civil liberties they cannot defend that measure. It is literally indefensible.
We would not consider governing our debates in this House with such a practice. Why not govern our debates in that way if it is a democratic way to do it, so that those who do not vote are counted in the No Lobby? As the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) pointed out there is an issue about how we got our mandate on May 7, and the Secretary of State said, “Oh, but that is not a binary decision.” The European Union (Referendum) Bill that we debated last Monday is a binary decision, and we did not spend a second debating whether people who did not bother to vote should be counted as a no vote. Why not do that? If this is at all democratic, why is it not in that Bill?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that plenty of institutions in this country rely on the concept of a quorum before they take important decisions—particularly damaging decisions—about the lives of millions of people? It is only right that we should subject decisions by trade unions to a quorum.
I have been generous to fellow members of the Johnson clan, but the hon. Gentleman must understand the difference. In those organisations and countries where a 75% threshold is set for industrial action, it is 75% of those voting. Perhaps there should be thresholds in some of the constitutional referendums that we have. Perhaps leaving the European Union should require a 75% yes vote because it is a major constitutional issue, but it would be 75% of those voting. That is the difference with this legislation.
No, I will not give way.
One thing that cannot be suggested is that the decision on the European Union is less important than the decision that union members take in industrial action ballots, but that is the only argument put forward for the introduction of this measure in the Bill. These are important issues, we are told, and the loss of important public services can have far-reaching effects on significant numbers of ordinary people. Well, so can the EU referendum. I suggest that Conservative Members should make the argument that people who do not vote should be recorded as voting no—
No, I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman. We have heard enough from him—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I seem to have made a popular decision.
Of course, the Government would make no such proposal, because it does not support democracy—indeed, it offends democracy. But we know nothing of the responses from all the institutions that may want us to take their views into account because the Bill was drawn up and put before the House even though the consultation closed only last Wednesday, five days ago. Incidentally, that breaches the Government’s own advice on how to consult on legislation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) mentioned, the Bill did go before the Regulatory Policy Committee, which was scathing about three aspects of the legislation it was asked to examine, including the thresholds for 40% and 50%. It gave a red card to all three, deeming them not fit for purpose and stating that the Government had not provided sufficient evidence of the likely impact of the proposals to support the consultation. The Regulatory Policy Committee is the Government’s own watchdog, and that is as damning an indictment of a piece of legislation as we are ever likely to see from it.
Another aspect of the Bill is the attempt to make processes involved in picketing part of criminal rather than civil law. It is designed to address allegations of picket line intimidation, but the Carr review, set up by the Conservatives under the coalition Government to investigate such allegations, specifically said that it could find no evidence of intimidation. In response to the review, which was led by a Conservative, the Local Government Association said that its view was that
“there are no particular issues for local government in terms of alleged extreme tactics and the appropriateness of the legal framework to deal with inappropriate and intimidatory actions …we…very rarely…hear of such alleged tactics”.
Through the Association of Chief Police Officers, the police said:
“In general the legislative framework is seen by the police as broadly fit for purpose and the range of criminal offences available to the police sufficient to deal with the situations encountered.”
This is a non-issue. It was examined by a committee that had to downgrade itself because there was no evidence.
The Government know little about the workplaces of Britain and understand less. They certainly have no comprehension of the role that free, independent trade unions play as an essential component of a mature democracy or the history of the struggle for workers’ rights in this country. Many Conservative Members probably think the Donovan commission was the backing group on “Mellow Yellow”.
My right hon. Friend has substantive experience of these matters over many years. Does he think that when a grievance in the workplace is artificially blocked from expressing itself it tends to go away, or does it fester in much worse ways for a much longer period of time, to the disadvantage of the employer as well as employees?
My hon. Friend raises the central point. I do not know about other trade union officials here, but I spent most of my time trying to stop strikes, trying to resolve them after they had happened and trying to find a formula to get people back to work. Try standing in front of 2,000 striking Liverpool postmen and telling them “I’ve got a deal.”
There is a complete fallacy which is shared by even the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell and his colleagues who are trade union members. They seem to miss the point that if unions cannot ballot legally, they lose the opportunity for leadership to hold the pressure cooker together and to conduct disputes in a civilised way with the employer. To lose or discourage that is asking for the kind of wildcat action mentioned by the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I can see you are looking at me. I will conclude my comments. Where the Government have consulted, the response is not known. Where they have put the Bill’s measures to its own Regulatory Policy Committee, they have been deemed not fit for purpose. The review commissioned to look at aspects of this proposed legislation was downgraded by its own Government-appointed chair. The major aspects of the Bill will breach the legally binding undertakings that UK Governments have signed up to through the International Labour Organisation. The greatest threat to workers and employees is not from balloted industrial action, which last year led to 155 stoppages in an economy of over 30 million workers, but from disruptive unofficial action that neither side of industry can control and that the Bill will make more likely. I am reminded of a Russian trade unionist—we all met them in our days as trade union officials before 1990—who said to me, “Of course industrial action is legal in Russia, as long as it has been approved by the state.” All I can say is that the Russians would have been proud of this Bill. It is a bad Bill. It needs to be killed—now.
I will be a lot brisker than the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). I hope I will be able to get through what I want to say in three or four minutes. If I do it briskly enough I will irritate everybody in this debate, because there are fallacies on all sides. I was not going to declare an interest, but the contribution by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) has provoked me. I do not have a financial interest, but my grandfather was blacklisted.
The reason those comments resonate with me is that my grandfather, who brought me up, was as a young man blacklisted and unemployed for 17 years because he was an organiser in the coalfields in the north-east. The House will understand that I am a little sensitive to some of the impingements on civil liberties that can come out of industrial relations.
It is a particular pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. I keep calling him my right hon. Friend. He was a fabulously good trade union leader. As we just heard, he is a great debater, but he and I have also served occasionally on the same side in negotiations. Every single time, we managed to get an outcome that was helpful to the workforce and to the companies we were dealing with. That does not mean, however, that he has everything right here.
I have been very helpful to the Labour party in some of the comments I have made, but I will say this: there is an issue when a monopoly—it does not matter whether it is a private or public sector monopoly—goes on strike. The victim is then the public. It is not the workforce, because they tend to get their money back in overtime, and it is certainly not the owners, because their market share does not go away and they do not lose anything. The public, however, have nowhere else to go. I have some sympathy with much of Labour Members’ criticisms of the Bill, but they have to address this issue: how do we deal with a problem where action by a trade union, without proper and sufficient support from its membership, discomforts the public very badly?
No, I am going to be very brisk.
The word “discomfort” is a very soft word to use. Not being able to go to work, to hospital or to school is more than a discomfort.
I would like to come on to my primary criticisms of the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the proposals relating to picketing. I am particularly offended by the idea that a picket organiser needs to give his name to the police force. I have discussed this with the Minister and know that this provision has been included in previous legislation. I am ashamed to say that I missed it last time, otherwise I would have voted against it. This is a serious restriction of freedom of association. It is not the same as getting the organiser of a big demonstration to give his name to the police. There is all the difference in the world between 500,000 people clogging up London and half a dozen pickets shivering around a brazier while trying to maintain a strike.
This issue is incredibly important, and we do not want to get on to a slippery slope. I say to the Minister that I will be seeking—and I am not alone—to alter the measure during the Bill’s progress. Doing that will improve the Bill; it will not make it worse or take away anything fundamental. It will, however, remove the suggestion, made time and again by the Opposition, that this is somehow a vindictive anti-union Bill. It is not. This should be a Bill for the people, not against the unions. That is what fits with our approach.
I also want to raise the issue—it is in consultation at the moment, but because the consultation has been fast it may turn up as a Government amendment later—of restricting the actions of unions on social media. This proposal strikes me as both impractical—how on earth would it be done?—and asking for judicial trouble. There will be judicial review if this line is pursued. It has been argued that the measure is there to stop bullying. Well, fine—then pass a law to stop bullying and intimidation, but make it affect everybody, not just trade unions. We already have quite a lot of laws to prevent intimidation.
They are two critical elements and weaknesses in the Bill. I say to the Minister that I will seek to prevent both of them making it through to Third Reading. I will vote for the Bill today, but I am afraid that if it still contains those measures on Third Reading, I will vote against it. I say again to him that I doubt I will be alone.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, it will be obvious to the House that although we have been having a lively debate and I have allowed speeches to go on to encourage genuine debate, a very large number of Members wish to speak. I will now have to impose a time limit of six minutes.
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
In opening the debate, the Secretary of State mentioned one nation Government. Disraeli, the architect of one nation Toryism, passed the Conspiracy, and Protection of Property Act 1875, which decriminalised the work of trade unions and allowed for picketing. I think Disraeli will be turning in his grave at what a Conservative Government are doing tonight. The Bill runs contrary to a British sense of fair play and common sense. It will increase bureaucracy and burdens of regulation, and it will be counterproductive to the Government’s stated aims of improving efficiency and productivity. The Bill will not help us become more prosperous. If anything, it runs the risk of making industrial action more disruptive and the British economy less productive and less attractive to inward investment.
As several of my hon. Friends have already said, the level of industrial action in the UK is historically low. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) said, the average number of working days lost to industrial action since 2010 has been 647,000, in stark contrast to the average in the 1980s of 7.213 million. The past 30 years have seen a historically low incidence of industrial action, as a consequence of the changing nature of the employment market, a reduction in union membership and legislation that, frankly, has restricted union power.
The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) suggested that such events were inconveniences when they happen. Surely the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) can accept that London is brought to its knees on a regular basis, with staff taking two or three hours to get to work and back again and with a great loss of employment and money. These are not inconveniences; they are serious and they need tackling.