Consideration of Lords amendments
After Clause 3
Provision for electronic balloting: review and piloting scheme
I beg to move Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment 2.
With this we will consider the following:
Government amendment (b) to Lords amendment 2.
Lords amendment 17, and Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (c) to words restored to the Bill.
The measures in the Bill aim to modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members and strike a fairer balance between the rights of trade unions and the rights of people who rely on public services, by ensuring that strikes happen only when unions have secured a clear, positive and recent democratic mandate. Consideration in the House of Lords has made important changes to the Bill, the great majority of which the Government believe will improve the Bill. However, the first group of amendments deals with those issues on which the Government do not support the proposed changes.
The first group is about electronic balloting and facility time. We have reflected carefully, in the light of the strong views expressed in debates in this House and in the other place, and I will take each issue in turn. As I have said before, the Government have no objection in principle to electronic balloting. I have also said before, and I am happy to say it again at the Dispatch Box, that it is likely to be common in 20 years’ time. We are seeking a degree of sensible caution on this matter.
The Minister will remember our many conversations about this in Committee. He says that he is not opposed to electronic balloting in principle and he accepts that it might come in. We can see the Lords amendment before us and there are moves towards a pilot scheme. Electronic balloting is used by many organisations including the Law Society, many businesses and indeed the Conservative party for the purposes of the mayoral elections. Why not just do this now?
I have greatly enjoyed debating the many detailed clauses of the Bill with the hon. Gentleman over a long period when he occupied a different post on the Opposition Front Bench, and if he will give me time, I will explain why I am not quite ready to rush to the nirvana that he describes.
We are seeking a degree of sensible caution to ensure that important votes—these are indeed statutory votes—are safe and secure, so I am not asking hon. Members today to reject the clause added to the Bill in the House of Lords on electronic balloting. However, I am asking for agreement to a small but important change to ensure that we proceed prudently on the basis of evidence as we take this important step.
The Minister will no doubt have seen the evidence from the Electoral Reform Society that the incidence of fraud in electronic balloting is no different from the incidence of fraud in postal balloting. In the light of that evidence, what is his objection?
The hon. Gentleman will have to be a little patient, because I am going to come on to talk about evidence from around the world of some of the problems that other systems have encountered when trying to embrace electronic balloting too quickly and without adequate preparation.
I appreciate from previous debates on the Bill in this House that there are differences of opinion about whether electronic balloting is sufficiently safe and secure. Lord Kerslake said that he personally was convinced that the case for it had been made, and we have heard from others in recent minutes that they too are so convinced, but Lord Kerslake was good enough to say that he appreciated that others were not. I remind the House that the Open Rights Group gave evidence to the Speaker’s Commission in which it neatly summed up the concerns over the security of online voting. It stated:
“Voting is a uniquely difficult question for computer science: the system must verify your eligibility; know whether you have already voted; and allow for audits and recounts. Yet it must always preserve your anonymity and privacy.”
That was the view of the Open Rights Group, and that is the view that we must investigate more carefully. Lord Kerslake explained that that was why his clause, added to the Bill in the other place, required that a review should be commissioned.
There have already been many reviews looking into this matter, such as those carried out by Electoral Reform Services, WebRoots Democracy and, of course, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. They have made encouraging comments about a move to electronic ballots, but none has been able to provide assurance on managing the risks. While there is still this doubt, I can see merit in exploring the issues further. And of course the important difference is that this review will be specifically in the context of electronic ballots for industrial action. So, in accepting that there should be a review, we accept the spirit of the clause on electronic balloting. In fact, we accept virtually the entirety of the amendment made by the Lords on electronic balloting.
I understand the position that the Minister is setting out, but I am struggling to understand his logic. If he is saying that electronic balloting is neither secure nor anonymous, is he implying that when Conservative party members vote for a particular candidate online in an internal Tory party election, it is neither secure nor anonymous?
With the greatest respect, I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that that is an internal election within an independent organisation. We are talking here about statutory elections, which are important because the public has a deep interest in their result and it is quite right that we should hold them to a higher standard than we do others.
The Minister sounds almost guilty of double standards on this issue. He says that he has accepted the majority of the Lords amendments, but he has neglected to adopt any of those components that require substantial action by the Government. What possible objection could he have to piloting an e-balloting scheme? I think he realises that he just does not have a reasonable argument against it.
If Opposition Members will just give me a minute, they will be able to hear my argument. Then they can decide whether they think it is reasonable or not.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I am now going to satisfy Opposition Members by setting out my argument, after which I will be happy to give way if they want to comment on it. There is only one element in the amendment made by the House of Lords with which we cannot agree and that is the strategy for roll-out, which prejudges the outcome of the review and irrevocably commits the Secretary of State to press ahead with a strategy for the roll-out of electronic balloting, irrespective of the review’s findings.
The Opposition may not welcome it, but they will be interested to know that there are many examples of where electronic balloting has been tried, but found not to work, and even of where it has had to be rolled back. The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy identified 14 countries that have tried internet voting for binding elections, including five countries—not only the UK, but Finland, the USA, the Netherlands and Spain—which either piloted or fully adopted electronic voting and then decided to discontinue its use.
I am interested to hear what the Minister says about that. The last Labour Government piloted e-voting, and the Electoral Commission report afterwards indicated that there was no evidence of fraud or other things, but what did for it was the scandal around postal voting in certain areas. There was no evidence in the report that e-voting was any more corrupt or inefficient than any other type of voting.
If the hon. Gentleman is correct and if there is no problem, the review will conclude so and will report to Parliament that there is—
No, I am not going to give way again; I am going to carry on with my argument. The review will report accordingly to the House.
The power to permit electronic balloting already exists in section 54 of the Employment Relations Act 2004, but we have not yet exercised it because we have not been convinced, and neither have any previous Government, including a Labour Government that held office for 13 years, that the system would ensure privacy, opportunity and minimise the risk of fraud and malpractice. There has been much positive progress in the way that technology can help to address such issues, which is reflected in the reports I have cited.
We have been clear that we will be willing to use the power when we are convinced that the concerns have been adequately addressed. The legislation is framed in a way that requires us first to be satisfied on such matters, and for good reason. That is why, instead of a strategy for roll-out, I am today seeking agreement to a statutory requirement for the Government to publish their response to the review, which would be laid before Parliament, making it readily accessible to hon. Members, who could ask questions and raise matters in the House in the usual way.
Before the Trade Union Bill reached the House of Lords, the Minister wrote a letter to ministerial colleagues that was leaked to the Socialist Worker, for which the Minister may have an explanation. Will he confirm that he will use secondary legislation to put e-balloting in place should the pilot be successful?
Madam Deputy Speaker, I can assure you that my relations with the Socialist Workers Party or its newspaper are probably rather less good than the hon. Gentleman’s, so it was not through my good offices that it got hold of any document—not that I accept that it did get hold of any document.
The hon. Gentleman asks a reasonable question, and I have made it clear that the Government have no objection in principle and that we expect statutory elections eventually to move towards online voting, but we will do that with trade union strike ballots when we are convinced that such voting is safe. That is why we want an independent review that will report to Parliament. I will not prejudge its outcome, because if I did, it would be slightly pointless to have the review in the first place.
I am happy to give way and will do so first to the hon. Gentleman.
The Minister said before that online voting was okay for the election of the Tory candidate for Mayor of London because the Conservative party is an independent organisation. I hope that he would accept that trade unions are also independent. Did the Tory party carry out a review into how secure the system was before it set up the discussions for having electronic voting for the Tory mayoral candidate?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman heard my previous answer and he must recognise that these are statutory elections. Internal elections for candidates in any party are not statutory. They might be subject to problems, but that is a problem for the organisation, not for the public. The public have a right to expect a higher standard in the consideration of statutory elections.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman; he has had a go. I will give way to the hon. Members for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who have not yet had a go, but all hon. Members are welcome to speak in this debate in their own right, so it would be right to make some progress.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to speak. He says that it might be pointless to have a review and all the other various stages, and I agree with him. A review of the technology is pointless, because it already exists. It has already been mentioned that the Conservative party has used the technology and, as a previous programmer, I can tell the Minister that it already exists and is secure. It has been used not only in various businesses and independent organisations, such as the Conservative party, but in “The X Factor” and various other TV shows. The Minister does not need a report; he just needs to move on to the next stage.
The hon. Lady is a fan of “The X Factor” and so are many of us, but she will recognise that, important though it is to the public, “The X Factor” is not a statutory election. While I am absolutely happy to acknowledge her expertise, I hope that she will acknowledge the evidence of the Open Rights Group. It is not a Tory front organisation—she can investigate it—but an independent specialist organisation that gave evidence only last year and said that there were specific issues to overcome. She will also have to explain to the review why it is that several countries have experimented with online voting and then reversed the decision because they found it to be unsafe. The review will allow us—
Will the Minister give way?
Of course. I did say that I would give way to the hon. Lady.
Will the Minister be specific and say how electronic voting is less secure than postal voting, which has additional risks?
No, I will not be specific, because we are going to set up an independent review involving people with real expertise in the matter. The hon. Lady will be welcome to give evidence to the review, which will produce a report that will be laid before Parliament. She can then interrogate the report and the Government’s response.
On the point being made by the Opposition about the Conservative party’s online voting, I found it impossible to get on to the site and was unable to vote for my candidate in the mayoral election. Did my hon. Friend experience the same issue?
I did not have that issue, but that does show that there can be issues with online voting, as there can be with postal voting. While it is not a matter of enormous public interest, because it was not a statutory election, we would be very worried if a statutory election, such as a union strike ballot, was subject to the same level of problems.
Have I not given way to the hon. Gentleman already? I will give way one more time and then I will get on.
Is the Minister seriously suggesting that whoever is the Conservative party candidate for London Mayor is not a matter of interest to the public? I find his argument bizarre.
I am quite happy to explain again that it is not a statutory election.
The review will allow us to consider again the case for e-balloting and ensure that we have assessed the latest technology. Taken together, the review and the Government’s response will enable the Secretary of State to make a properly informed and transparent decision about the risks of achieving safe, secure electronic balloting, and therefore whether such a system should be rolled out.
The Minister has invited us to contribute to the review. I wonder whether he will accept electronic submissions or do we have to get our quills and parchment out?
The hon. Lady makes a good point—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) suggests that submissions should be inscribed on vellum, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has a particular enthusiasm for that means of communication, but I prefer the more modern kind, so I suggest that an online submission—perhaps even by WhatsApp—might be appropriate.
Turning to the reserve power to cap facility time, the Government do not agree with the Lords amendment.
As my hon. Friend knows, I am in favour of electronic voting, but the route that he is taking is the correct one. The one real fear out there, which can be put paid to right now, is that this approach is designed simply to delay the onset of online voting. Will he tell the House that, when the Minister receives the report, it will be dealt with with appropriate dispatch?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution on this and other important matters. He has made a significant contribution to the improvement of this Bill. On his particular question, the amendment that we propose agrees with the noble Lords that this review should be commissioned within six months and then reported to Parliament. I have made it clear that we have no objection in principle to e-balloting. If the review suggests that it is safe to embrace, we will proceed with it. I think he will have noted that the amendment specifically suggests that we should be able to introduce pilots. One issue with the existing provisions is that it might not be possible to do a pilot without going for a full application. Such pilots might well be an appropriate phase after the review has been completed.
Let me return now to facility time and the facility time cap. The Government do not agree with the Lords amendment and, in consequence, I am moving amendment 17, which brings back the reserve cap, but with safeguards that respond to the concerns that were expressed in our debates and that led to the deletion of the clause in the other place and were the subject of quite forensic inquisition in both Houses.
Together with the publication requirements, it is my view that a reserve power to cap facility time to a reasonable level delivers our manifesto commitment to
“tighten the rules around taxpayer-funded paid facility time for union representatives.”
I shall reiterate what I said when this House was previously considering the Bill. We are not seeking to ban facility time. That has never been our intention. Our strong preference is that transparency alone should be enough to change practices in the public sector, with employers voluntarily reducing their costs where they are found to be spending more on facility time than is reasonable.
The Minister is being very generous. In the aforementioned leaked memo to which I referred earlier, there was an indication that there would be concessions and discussions with the devolved Administrations in relation to facility time. Will he confirm whether consultations have taken place with the devolved Administrations, or whether it is his intention to dictate to the devolved Administrations what the facility time should be for their own workforce?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I never comment on articles in the Socialist Worker. He will also understand that we have regular conversations with Ministers in the devolved Administrations, but all of the matters addressed in this Bill are reserved matters. It is a matter not of dictating, but of this Government fulfilling their duty to legislate on the matters for which we have exclusive responsibility.
Specifically on the point about devolved powers, is it not the case that in that letter the Minister received legal advice saying that there is a very weak case for enforcing those powers on the Welsh Government?
The hon. Lady, who made an admirable and, for me, rather challenging contribution to our deliberations in Committee, knows that we do not comment on legal advice.
If publication, and the proper monitoring and recording that it necessitates, do not achieve the aim of bringing excessive spending on facility time back down to a reasonable level, it will be necessary to consider the imposition of a cap. A reserve power is very much a power of last resort.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I wish to explain what we are now proposing, because it is a little different from what we proposed previously. I will give way to him before I conclude on the facility time cap.
A reserve power is very much a power of last resort. Although our amendment 17 brings back the reserve power, we are not simply replicating the provision that this House considered previously and that was deleted from the Bill in the other place. The amendment before the House today incorporates a number of safeguards that will trigger how and when the reserve power to cap facility time would be exercised. We have listened to the concerns of Members of this House and the other place and have sought to address those concerns in the amendment.
The published data under the facility time publication requirements in this Bill will provide valuable information about levels of spending across the public sector and inform decisions about what should be regarded as a reasonable level of spend on facility time, taking into account the needs of the relevant sector as well as the particular circumstances of individual employers within the sector.
Let me finish this bit, because I am trying to explain what is different about what we doing. I will then be very happy to give way to my hon. Friend.
It is our intention that exercise of the reserve power will not even be considered before there are at least two years of data from the bodies subject to the publication requirement. Following the publication of the second year’s data, should a particular employer’s facility time be a cause for concern, having regard to all relevant factors, the Minister will send and publish a letter to the employer drawing attention to the concerns. The employer will have the opportunity to set out the reasons for the level of facility time. They will then have at least a further year from the date the Minister notifies it of concerns to make progress on its facility time levels. Nothing will be done until a third year’s data have been published. Only then will the Minister be at liberty to exercise the reserve power and make regulations to cap facility time for those employers.
A person who enjoys facility time will spend a lot of that time trying to manage huge reorganisations and redundancies, most of which are the responsibility of the Minister’s former Government. Can he explain what he means when he says things such as “excessive” and “reasonable”? Over the past four years, Gateshead council has lost 48% of its budget and 2,000 people have been made redundant. People have been engaged day and night, trying to redeploy and retrain people. How on earth is a Minister in Whitehall going to be able to pull all that together and say, “Well, that works for them, but it does not work for others.”? It is nonsense.
The hon. Gentleman is right. What is reasonable can vary according to the organisation and the situation of that organisation, which is why we want to collect two years of data before we establish what seems to be a reasonable level by looking at comparable organisations. I will come on to the fact that we will also be creating the possibility of removing the cap from an organisation if it has a particular situation, such as the one that he describes, that would justify a much higher level of spending on the different kinds of facility time.
What my hon. Friend is trying to make explicit is that, across the trade union movement there are shop stewards who do an excellent job, day in, day out, but there are some situations where the facility time is taken advantage of. One merely has to think of Grangemouth. Can he be clear on this? He has struck the right balance in the way that he looks at things, but at no time has he said that all shop stewards are swinging the lead or that a lot of valuable work goes on.
I am very happy to confirm and applaud what my hon. Friend said. In truth, I would be as worried if an organisation was declaring no spending on facility time as if it was declaring excessive spending on facility time. Helping people with training or with health and safety issues is not just appropriate, but vital in a well-run organisation. He will recognise, as will Members across the House, that there have been agencies and Departments—we have had direct dealings of this within the civil service—that were allowing an abuse of the system. We want to restore confidence in the system by making it clear that we need transparency. If there is still excessive behaviour, we will introduce a cap.
In order to try to help the House understand why you feel that there is a need for this cap on facility time, could you tell the House what percentage of public sector employers excessively grant facility time and how many of them would this cap be beneficial in stopping?
I am not at all sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you feel that there is a need for a cap, but I think the hon. Gentleman was referring to me.
Order. Let us clear that up. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) will get used to the fact that if one says “you”, that means me. If one says “the hon. Gentleman”, that means the Minister.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that for your sake I should clarify that.
The hon. Gentleman asks a very reasonable question, but I hope he understands that until we have applied the transparency clause, we do not know the current level of spending across the broader public sector, so we cannot judge which organisations are spending in excess.
No, I will finish. We know that when we introduced a similar provision in the civil service, we found that some organisations were acting perfectly responsibly and others were allowing an abuse of the system, hence we introduced a cap in the civil service. That has saved the taxpayer money and has not in any way undermined the proper fulfilment of responsibilities by trade union representatives. I shall now make some progress—
Well, okay. I have such a soft spot for the hon. Gentleman.
The Minister is indulgent. I appreciate his generosity. Given some of the rhetoric from some of his ministerial colleagues and others about the matter, does he recognise that people might have a reasonable suspicion that even after collecting the data, the Government might seek to use these powers perniciously, going after particular groups whose practices they are not happy with, rather than using the powers in the way that he describes? Does he accept that that is a reasonable suspicion?
I do not. After all, I am the Minister and I will be in charge of this until the Prime Minister decides otherwise. The hon. Gentleman has had enough time to judge whether or not I am sincere. He will also note that in the amended proposals that we are putting forward today, there have to be three years’ data before we can introduce a cap, and that where there is some concern about the level of spending we have to allow the organisation an opportunity to explain why that level of spending is appropriate. That responds in part to what the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) said. Partly through the good offices of hon. Members in this House and in the other place, there are now greater safeguards to ensure that there can be no abuses.
I am a bit confused about what the cost will be of a Minister or civil servants sitting down and sifting through mountains of data from every council and every public body covered by the provision to determine whether facility time has been abused, when from his own lips the Minister has just admitted that he does not know whether there has been any abuse. If there is not a problem, why are we bringing in this expensive system that is impossible to regulate?
I do not accept that it will be expensive. Although there are no data because the transparency clauses have not yet been applied, I point the hon. Gentleman to estimates that the public sector as a whole spends on average 0.14% of its total pay bill on facility time, the civil service spends 0.07%—half of that—and the private sector spends 0.04%. I can promise him that if he multiplies the pay bill of the public sector by that percentage, he will arrive at a very large figure indeed, and a great deal more than the cost of implementing these clauses.
I have been generous and I will be generous again, but I shall try to make some progress.
As I indicated, the amendment provides that the cap may be disapplied for as long as necessary and to the extent necessary for individual employers. This would enable a temporary lifting of the cap for one or more specific employers, and we propose to use it in circumstances where the employer and Ministers consider it necessary. We envisage that should a particular employer experience a need for more facility time, perhaps during a period of change or following a particular incident, Ministers can allow this so that facility time can be increased to respond to the circumstance. The reserve power that this amendment would deliver is considerably improved from the version that was deleted in the other place, and I urge the House to support it. I commend the amendments to the House.
I want to make it clear right at the outset that we remain opposed to this Bill. Despite some of the changes that it has undergone in another place, it remains a dreadful, mean-spirited, partisan, petty piece of legislation. Having got that off my chest, I recognise that Members in another place have made a valiant attempt to make a silk purse out of this particularly malformed sow’s ear, so that after today it may end up being a slightly less ugly sow’s ear than it was, but it will remain a malodorous porcine lug, for all their lordships’ noble efforts.
Many of the changes that peers made are welcome if we consider the crudeness of the Bill in its original form. On the first group of Lords amendments and the Government’s response to them, Lords amendment 2 was passed in the other place by 320 votes to 181, requiring the Government to commission a review of electronic voting in industrial action ballots within six months of Royal Assent. After the review, amendment 2 would require the Government to publish a strategy for rolling out electronic voting.
Government amendment (a) would revise Lords amendment 2 so that Ministers are required only to publish a response to the review, but need not take further action to actually introduce e-balloting. The Government have consistently resisted e-balloting on the grounds that they still had concerns about the safety of electronic voting, despite the fact, as many hon. Members have pointed out, that the Conservative party used electronic ballots for the selection of its London mayoral candidate, although I suppose the Conservatives may now be regretting that, given the poor performance of the candidate they selected using that method. Perhaps that explains the Government’s concern.
It is clear that the Government’s real objection to e-balloting and, indeed, to workplace balloting, which we argued for unsuccessfully in this House and in the other place, has been that they do not want high turnouts because their new threshold barriers could be more easily reached if more people were more easily able to vote.
Not only will all ballots for industrial action require a minimum 50% turnout under the Bill, but those working in the loosely defined “important public services group” will face an additional hurdle of needing a 40% yes vote from all those eligible to vote. That means that these thresholds place higher requirements on those industrial action ballots than on any other democratic process within the UK. For example, the 50% turnout threshold was not reached for the last London Mayoral election or most local government and devolved elections.
The Government have agreed that Ministers should be required to commission an independent review of the use of e-ballots for industrial action within six months of Royal Assent. They have agreed that it will be possible to run pilots as part of that review, as the Minister said, but the Government are proposing that after the review Ministers would need to publish a response, but not necessarily to take any further action. There would be no requirement to publish a strategy for rolling out electronic voting.
Is there not a slight concern that this is just a delaying tactic by the Government, who do not intend to introduce these measures? Given that in 2016 many people are quite used to banking online, registering to vote online and submitting their tax returns online, do not questions about security and anonymity fall by the wayside?
I know the Minister, and I take him at his word when he says that that is not his intention and that this is not a delaying tactic. However, to coin a phrase, he is a here today, gone tomorrow Minister—I say that from experience, as a former Minister—and somebody else may well occupy his place in the future. That person may not have the good intentions the Minister has outlined to the House today, and we must legislate for that possibility, rather than assume that somebody with good will is going to occupy his seat in perpetuity.
The Government propose that they would not have to publish a strategy after the review. Let me be clear: their amendment is not necessary. I accept that they have moved a long way in accepting the review, the pilots, the requirement to lay a report before Parliament, the need to consult experts and to get advice and recommendations, and the need to commission a report within six months of passing the Act. Those changes are significant, and they go part of the way towards achieving what we have argued for right from the start, as well as achieving most of what was agreed in the other place with cross-Bench support.
As someone who, along with other colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), considers that electronic balloting is probably the right way to go, may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman welcomes the progress the Minister and the Government have made in that direction? I believe that the Minister, and indeed any future Minister, although I hope this Minister remains in his place for a long time, will ensure that the evidence is looked at and that, provided it shows that electronic balloting is the right way to go, which I very much hope it does, we will go forward with it.
Obviously I cannot comment on how long the Minister will remain in his post—we will see what happens in the forthcoming reshuffle. However, I did recognise the movement the Government have made, although I made it clear that their amendment to their lordships’ amendment is unnecessary and that the whole matter could have been dealt with in a much more straightforward manner. However, we are where we are, having received these amendments from the Lords, and those are all that we can discuss today.
Ultimately, it is inconceivable that any Minister, having received a report on how e-balloting could be introduced safely, would then deny trade union members the opportunity to participate in a ballot using modern electronic communications. The only possible reason for Ministers at that future point to reject an expert report outlining the appropriate way to introduce modern technology into ballots and to offer the opportunity for easier participation in a democratic vote would be a desire to suppress turnout.
The hon. Gentleman comes right to the point. He does not have to rely on the good will of this Minister, who I am sure will be in the Cabinet in six months. The reason I asked the Minister to outline at the Dispatch Box the Government’s intent on receipt of the report was that, if another Minister were ever tempted not to follow the explicit policy line we have now, the hon. Gentleman and I could hold that Minister to account in this Chamber.
I do not know whether future Prime Minister Gove will appoint the Minister to the Cabinet—we shall have to wait and see—but the right hon. Gentleman is exactly right. That is why the Government’s amendment is unnecessary and dilutes the effect of accepting the rest of this Lords amendment. However, I am seeking to put on record the fact that, should any future Minister take another path, having had a clear recommendation in the report, one could only interpret their intentions as less than honourable.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Could you advise me whether it is in order for the House to spend quite so much time talking about my career prospects, because I do not feel that that is really helping?
I am not sure whether that is good or bad for the House.
I am happy to leave the Minister alone for the rest of the debate, apart from on the issues we are discussing.
If any Minister did take the path I described, there would obviously be considerable anger and opposition from not just the Labour party but other parties and Members of the other place, who worked so hard to craft this amendment on electronic balloting. In practice, I think the momentum for e-balloting will be unstoppable if the report is published and comes to the conclusions we think it will. However, we prefer the Lords amendment, and we will seek to keep it in the Bill this afternoon.
Let me move on to the other part of this group of amendments, which includes Lords amendment 17, on facility time, the Government’s motion to disagree with it, and their proposed additions to clause 13—should the House decide to reinstate it by voting to disagree with the Lords. The Lords passed amendment 17 by 248 votes to 160, removing Ministers’ power to impose a cap on union facilities by deleting clause 13. The Government have tabled a motion to disagree with Lords amendment 17 so that they can restore their ability to impose a cap on facilities. They have proposed a further amendment to amend the reinstated clause in line with assurances they gave in the Lords, providing that no cap could be imposed for the first three years after the new reporting requirements on facilities came into force.
Before Ministers could impose a cap they would need to review the published data on facilities, the cost of facilities for the relevant employer, the nature of the services run by the public authority, any particular factors relevant to the employer, and other related matters. They would also need to consider the type of organisation and any relevant factors—for example, if the organisation was facing a major restructure. If the Minister had concerns about the level of facilities in a particular public authority, under the Government’s proposed provisions he would need to write to the employer expressing those concerns.
What is having to review all this information going to cost the taxpayer? The Minister skated over that. Surely if it is to be done thoroughly and effectively it will come at great cost to the taxpayer.
Indeed. Given that the Government’s stated purpose in doing this is to look after the interests of the taxpayer, it is ironic that what my hon. Friend says is exactly the case.
As I said, we are dealing with what we have got back from the Lords. We would not have wished this provision to remain in the Bill at all. We support the Lords amendment to remove it from the Bill completely, and I am setting out to the House the consequences of not doing so.
The original clause 13 included a reserve power for Ministers to introduce regulations imposing an arbitrary cap on the amount of time that union reps in the public sector can spend in the workplace improving health and safety standards, promoting learning and training opportunities, consulting on redundancies or on TUPE transfers, negotiating better pay and conditions, and even representing members in grievances and disciplinary hearings. We agree with the Lords that the clause on facility time should have been removed from the Bill altogether. It is an unnecessary interference in the conduct of good industrial relations. It also goes against the Government’s professed desire to support devolution, as other hon. Members have pointed out, including the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens). As the Minister will know, it is being resisted by the devolved Administrations.
We acknowledge, however, that significant advances have been made in Government amendment (a). We support the Lords and want this clause removed from the Bill, but if the House decides not to do so, Government amendment (a) will at least make some improvement to a proposal that should never have appeared in the first place.
I should like to speak to amendment (a) to Lords amendment 2. I hope my comments are met in the spirit in which I hope to make them.
I want to outline a frustration that I expressed on Second Reading when I spoke about turnout thresholds within the private sector. In my remarks, I made it clear that trade unions have a very important part to play in the workplace, whether on health and safety, bullying, contract renegotiations regarding a change in working practices or funding, or many such issues. It is wrong to be seen not to appreciate the work that trade unions do. Indeed, as I said earlier, many shop stewards in this country do an outstanding job. I had experience of that when I was a member of Unite, with some excellent shop stewards who worked very well.
I also said on Second Reading that I was not keen on turnout thresholds in the private sector, because, as I outlined, the threshold to go on strike in the private sector is much higher than in the public sector. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it may be, when people go on strike in the public sector, there will generally always be a job to go back to because it is being funded largely by Government through taxation, whereas in the private sector the same threshold cannot be guaranteed, especially in smaller business. If a workforce withdraws its labour, it has gone through a much higher threshold, in its own mind, in perhaps putting at risk the ongoing viability of the company. Therefore, taking strike action in those circumstances means, first, that the conditions that have led to that strike must be very bad, and, secondly, that there has been a complete breakdown of relations between the shop stewards and the owners of those companies.
On Second Reading, I cited Grunwick in the 1970s. I repeat that I do not support the Conservative party’s attempts in the 1970s to break the strike in that company, run by George Ward, because people were working in appalling conditions. Strike action was taken to try to improve conditions that would be unacceptable today. As I said previously, I applaud the last Labour Government for introducing a legal requirement to allow a trade union to operate in the workplace if that is the wish of members of staff.
I therefore hope hon. Members understand my regret that movement was not made on turnout thresholds in the private sector. The flip side of that is that I believe that it is right to have a turnout threshold in the public sector.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many trade unions have thresholds in their rule books to ensure that a certain percentage of members must vote? When I was a full-time official, my union, the GMB, had a threshold. It is therefore not the case that the threshold is uniform across all unions or businesses.
I accept that, but as the hon. Gentleman says, the threshold is not uniform, and in the public sector it is right to have a threshold for taking action when there is a lot of employment protection in terms of having jobs to go back to.
Although I have regrets about the threshold for the private sector, I believe that electronic balloting will lead to higher turnouts and will meet strike thresholds, and as long as the system is secure and can be seen to be genuine, it is the right thing to do. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to apply the policy as quickly as possible because that will enable the private sector to meet the thresholds more easily than perhaps it can now.
There is a balance to be struck. There needs to be some control on those in the public sector who cause great disruption to people who work in the private sector who may not enjoy the terms and conditions that they do. I unreservedly support thresholds in the public sector, but I do not have the same regard for them in the private sector. Hon. Members can refer back to Hansard and my comments on Second Reading, which explain my views further.
The Government’s approach to electronic balloting is right. When it can be proved to be safe and reliable, it should be introduced because I believe the Bill will have the unintended consequence of having a bigger effect on union members in the private sector than on union members in the public sector.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my trade union activity in the past 20 years.
In the past few days in the media, we have seen the performance of somersaults of Olympian proportions, and I commend Ministers for that. Having voted down sensible amendments in Committee and on Third Reading to allow alternative methods of voting in industrial action ballots, Ministers found themselves so out of step on the work and organisation of trade unions that even arch-Thatcherites such as Lord Michael Forsyth are friends of the workers by comparison. If I were a member of the Conservative party, I would be very worried about that.
I welcome this minor change. As we have argued previously, if e-balloting is good enough for the Conservative party to elect its candidate for London Mayor, surely it is good enough for trade unions to use when making their choices. As Lord Cormack said in the other place,
“I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government are arguing against a system that the Conservative Party felt was good enough for the selection of a candidate for London Mayor”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2016; Vol. 769, c. 1861.]
I listened carefully to the reasons the Minister gave for the decision to let the Conservative party use that system, but not the trade unions. I gently say to him that if a vote was taken on who out of the trade unions and the current Mayor of London had disrupted the public’s lives more, I do not think that the answer would be what the Government would hope.
Online balloting is more accessible and inclusive. We firmly believe that access to electronic balloting will enhance engagement and participation, as more people use electronic devices to communicate every day.
Frankly, we cannot fathom the suggestion that online balloting is unsafe and insecure. The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) said that she had difficulty accessing the ballot. I wanted to ask her a number of questions. Did the email with the accompanying link to the ballot paper say, “If you press this link, the website may be unsafe and insecure”? Perhaps it said, “Clicking this link may lead to a fraudulent act.” What does that mean for the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith)? Is he unsafe and insecure—some Government Members are nodding their heads—or is it only Conservative party members who have access to safe and secure emails? Do Conservative party members have more privileges than an American Express gold card offers? That is what the trade union movement and members are asking themselves. Why is there one rule for them and another for the rest of us?
The difficulty with postal balloting—the Minister has been pressed on this before—is that the number of post boxes across the UK has reduced by 17% in the past 10 years, so it is more difficult for people to participate in a postal ballot.
Given the increase in postal charges in recent years, does my hon. Friend agree that it also costs more to do postal balloting?
Yes, I agree. I also take the view that postal balloting prolongs the length of a dispute because of the time it takes to conduct such a ballot. Electronic balloting allows for greater flexibility and efficiency.
Like the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), we are disappointed that the pilot will not extend to workplace balloting as a secure option, because that would increase democracy in the workplace. The TUC has previously argued that there is no evidence that workers feel intimidated into voting a particular way when ballots take place in the workplace, as has been argued by the Government.
Although the Government have accepted the need to commission an independent review on the use of e-ballots for industrial action, their amendment (a) effectively means that Ministers would only have to publish a response to the review. They would, therefore, not be obligated to introduce a strategy to roll out electronic voting. That is simply unacceptable.
Lords amendment 2 is actually very moderate. The question is whether the Government’s response is good enough or whether it weakens the intent behind the Lords amendment. Having listened carefully to the Minister, we can only conclude that Government amendment (a) does weaken the other place’s intention.
The Government propose to revise the Lords amendment in such a way that Ministers would be required only to publish a response, but they would not need to take any action. That underlines what the Government intend to do after the e-balloting review. They intend to do nothing: there will be no strategy on how to proceed and, therefore, no actual commitment to allowing electronic balloting in the future. That is absurd. If the Government were truly intent on modernising the law, they would allow for electronic balloting and secure workplace balloting. I would be interested in the Minister’s response to that. Our view is clear. Electronic balloting will modernise the law, promoting democracy and inclusion.
We have always been clear that the clause on facility time is completely unnecessary and unwanted. Having such a clause in the Bill signals intent: the Government’s intent to interfere with the facility time arrangements—the basic industrial relations arrangements—not only of devolved Administrations but of local authorities across the United Kingdom. As Lord Kerslake put it in the other place,
“The Government are saying that the costs should be transparently known and proportionate to the benefits…However, this is fully secured…through Clause 12. There is no need for the reserve powers contained in Clause 13.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2016; Vol. 769, c. 1905.]
He further stated:
“If, however, the public body is a local authority, it has its own democratic mandate and is answerable to its own electorate for the cost. Given the immense financial pressures now on local authorities, do we really think that they are incapable of making this judgment?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2016; Vol. 769, c. 1906.]
Although we acknowledge that some amendments have been made by the Government, that is simply not good enough. Any attempt by the UK Government to instruct devolved institutions on how to treat their workers should be robustly resisted. Facility time allows union representatives to spend time in the workplace improving the safety and health of their workers. Representatives also promote training opportunities and negotiate better pay, terms and conditions for employers, among many other roles and responsibilities. Limiting the ability of unions to play such a role in our public sector will have a damaging impact on public sector workers across the United Kingdom.
Trade unions are key social partners, which play an important role in sustaining effective democracy in society, particularly in the workplace. The existence of good employment practices is a key contributor to economic competitiveness and social justice. In Scotland, the SNP Government have taken a different approach. We have taken a modern and progressive approach to industrial relations and believe that trade unions are at the heart of achieving fair work. The UK Government should work with trade unions in a social partnership approach rather than launching yet more attacks against them.
Industrial relations mechanisms should be agreed at a devolved or local level. It beggars belief that the UK Government do not believe that a legislative consent motion is required for a UK Minister to dictate policy in these areas. The detail of much of the Bill is set out in regulations, and there will be no formal opportunity for the Scottish Government or the Welsh Government to influence such regulations. Today, we need a commitment from the UK Government that the rights of workers across the UK will not be restricted by the imposition of facility time.
In Committee, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) asked the Minister whether the Health Secretary would
“make regulations that affect facility time in the health services of Scotland and Wales, which are wholly devolved and under the control of Health Ministers in those countries”.
The Minister replied, “Yes,” but stressed that
“health policy and the management of the NHS in those countries will remain…in the control of the Governments” ––[Official Report, Trade Union Public Bill Committee, 22 October 2015; c. 347.]
He was referring to the Governments of the devolved Administrations. I said at the time:
“Having only just debated Evel last week, it seems that the UK Government now want to dictate to devolved administrations”.
On 2 February, the Minister said that the Government would not change the proposals on facility time and check-off provisions in the Bill. However, the infamous letter referred to earlier of 26 January—the letter was leaked by the Socialist Worker newspaper and published widely in other media outlets—contained a number of concessions that the Government proposed to make to the Bill in the House of Lords. Those concessions included giving devolved Administrations the right to maintain facility time and check-off arrangements. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed today that devolved Administrations will maintain that control over facility time. The SNP will continue to push to derail any attempt by the UK Government to dictate to Scotland and other devolved Administrations how they should treat their public sector workers.
First, I declare an interest as a member of the GMB. My wife also works for a trade union.
We often hear the cry from Conservative Members that the turnout in union ballots is not high enough. We have before us a mechanism that would at least assist with that, by getting more people to participate in e-balloting. I have seen some pretty poor excuses for statements, but today’s statement about why we cannot introduce e-balloting for trade union ballots must win the prize for the poorest argument.
This Government pride themselves on wanting to be an e-Government on everything from driving licences to the new universal credit, which can only be accessed online. The Minister said the Government need to be convinced that e-balloting would be secure, but in response to numerous interventions from Labour Members, he did not articulate the reasons why he thought the process was in any way insecure. I would respect his position more if he came up with reasons and said what the problems are. The idea of a review is clearly the classic civil service “kick it into the long grass” approach.
I do not want to take up time because lots of Members want to speak, but may I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to elections conducted in the Philippines? Interestingly, a company called Smartmatic—chaired by a former Labour Minister, his colleague Lord Malloch-Brown—was put in charge of conducting online voting for the entire population of the Philippines. There was a hack, in which the identity data of 70 million people were stolen, and a report said that every registered voter’s data were open to abuse.
I know this Government love things foreign, but may I tell the Minister, with great respect, that he need not go very far to find examples of where e-voting has worked and there have not been any problems? I am referring to the pilots that took place in 2004, including in my constituency and others in the north-east, after which the Electoral Commission’s report found no problems with e-voting. He will obviously want to go on a fact-finding trip to the Philippines to look at this—I am sure we would all welcome his going there—but the fact is that he just needs to look at has happened in this country.
I must say that the Minister put up the very flimsy defence to the question, “If it’s all right for the Conservative party, why is it not all right for the trade union movement?” I would have respected his position if he had come up with concrete reasons why he thought electronic—[Interruption.] Well, he cites the Philippines, but has he actually looked at the Electoral Commission’s report on e-voting in 2004? It quite clearly stated that there was no issue of fraud or any risk to security. The fact that the Government then got cold feet about what I must say was a rather hysterical campaign against postal voting is neither here nor there.
That has been said not just by the Electoral Commission, but by the Electoral Reform Society, which is obviously expert in e-voting. It has certainly conducted a number of internal elections for the Labour party using e-voting, and it would be quite capable of running similar elections for the trade union movement.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Minister backed himself into a corner by saying that such votes were so important that they could not be done electronically. Let us look, for example, at foundation trusts, which elect their governors by electronic voting and are quite happy that such a system is secure. The Minister may think that that is not very important, but my constituents certainly think that choosing those who run their local hospital and have a lot of powers in my area is a pretty important decision.
My hon. Friend is right that electronic voting is used by many organisations, including private companies and charities, to consult their members. Organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, which are used by many bodies to conduct ballots, whether in electronic or postal form, not only have a track record of impartiality and strict adherence, but are respected not just in this country but internationally—the Minister is interested in international comparisons—so it is pretty pathetic to say we need more evidence.
The other weakness in the Government’s argument is that I am not convinced that, once they have had this so-called review, they will actually implement the proposal. The proposal came from the trade unions, and I congratulate the general secretaries and others who have backed it. It would be a move forward by improving access to voting for trade union members and by improving the situation.
I turn briefly to the facility time cap. This one is remarkable. The Minister quite clearly stated that he did not know what the abuse was. If he does not know what it is, why is he trying to fix it? We all know why—it is a way of attacking the trade unions. I will give him a chance to say this, but he has not demonstrated what the cap system they have come up with will cost. It will mean sifting through all the various organisations and then going into detail, because those organisations will individually have to justify why they need facility time. It is a bit of a dog’s breakfast.
I agree with what the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said about devolution. This Bill is another example of this Government saying that they are committed to devolution and to giving decisions to local authorities, but then doing exactly the opposite and dictating to local authorities what they should and should not do. With democratically accountable organisations, these things should be up to the electorates to decide.
There is another important issue that the Minister did not touch on. It is all right to argue about whether people can use facility time, but, in these so-called reports that are going to be done, no indication is going to be given of what money is saved by organisations such as local councils because they have good industrial relations and can ensure that, for example, when redundancies are needed that can be done efficiently.
I wish to challenge the Government about the way in which they are handling the Lords amendments. They need to be clearly scrutinised to make sure that there is evidence behind what is said, as today is yet another example of a Government who are evidence light when putting their proposals before Parliament.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will just quickly declare an interest first. I am a member of Unite and of the GMB, and was a Unite official for 17 years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the evidential basis for the entire Bill has been non-existent throughout its passage through Parliament? Levels of industrial action are at historical lows in the UK. The days of work lost per year to strikes are down 90% since the 1980s.
I thank my hon. Friend for making those points, and in particular, the point that levels of industrial action are at an all-time low. The industrial action that is occurring is in the public sector, where the Government are failing to negotiate with the trade unions, as we see today with the junior doctors. We have to examine why we are in the situation that we are in, but the evidence does not sit on the Government’s side.
I have overseen many industrial action ballots, including paper ballots and electronic indicative ballots. There is greater engagement with electronic balloting. There is a reason for that—it is convenient. It is also far more accurate. We do not have the same issues as with paper ballots, because in electronic ballots it is very clear whether a vote is a yes or a no, whereas other forms of voting can be more ambiguous—we all experience that on election night. The intention of the person voting is very clear in an electronic ballot.
I put this challenge to the Minister. He has talked about his tour of the world, but we are talking about ballots here in the UK and an evidence base from the UK. That evidence is overwhelming; I would say that it shows 100% security of electronic balloting. Other countries may not have such rigour in their processes, so it is inappropriate to bring them into the equation. It was very telling that the Minister was unable to say why it was less safe to use electronic ballots than postal ballots because the evidence simply is not there.
It is also important that the Government acknowledge the temperature of industrial relations, in the public sector in particular. People express a view about decisions that have been made on terms and conditions because it is essential that the Government respond to that. High turnouts will help inform the Government in their decision-making processes. They are vital.
Like many of my colleagues, I point out that the Government depend on electronic means for matters that I would say are far more serious: tax returns, local government council tax collection, driving licence applications and registering to vote in a parliamentary election are all done electronically. We know that many—if not all—bank transfers of millions of pounds in which the Government engage are done electronically, so why does a vote of an independent trade union require even more vigour than processes that the Government already use? It does not add up, other than to say that the Government are using this as a political tool.
The Labour party does not have confidence in the Government’s intentions for the process of review and roll-out for electronic balloting, and they should set out the timetable for that review. They say that it will start in six months, but when will it end, how long will it last, and how will it lead positively to a roll-out? We must start enabling trade unions now to provide and build up evidence from the pilots, which they can then run in parallel to prove that electronic voting is safe, accurate, and gets a clear result on the intentions of workers over a dispute.
There is no evidence behind what the Minister said about a facilities time cap. Let us consider the cost of administration, and the time taken up by ministerial hands to review what has been put together. How many personnel will be involved? Will a whole unit be set up for that three-year review? What about public sector employers who will also need to dedicate a lot of time to provide evidence for that review? That will be time that they do not have because, as we know, they are already challenged with the cuts in local government, the NHS and elsewhere. How will they find the resources to supply the Minister with the information that he will then scrutinise for hours and hours, day and night, before assessing whether there have been excessive costs?
How will the Minister balance the minuscule cost of facility time with the amount of money that trade unions save through employers not going to employment tribunals or having such high sickness levels, and by so much value being added to organisations through increased productivity? I would like a response. How will the Minister assess the cost of health, safety, learning, and all the value that trade union reps bring?
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. If we are all brief, nearly everybody will get in.
At every stage of this Bill I have asked what great calamity there is in our land’s industrial relations that requires us to bring forward new primary legislation. I have yet to receive an answer, because of course there is none. This proposal is unique among many that we have considered in this House, because it is not a proposal to change public policy as a result of a problem that has been identified in society; the proposal before the House is motivated purely by the ideology of factions inside the Conservative party that have scores to settle, and whose antipathy towards the trade unions is manifest.
Some Conservative Members—they are not in their place at the moment—do not share that view, but overall that is where the centre of political gravity lies in the party of government. It is setting itself an attitude that will inform public policy on trade unions that is not shared by almost any other Government in Europe, or in the advanced capitalist world. Why are the Government going so far out on a limb to set themselves apart from everyone else? I accept that the Bill is now slightly less bad than it was on Second Reading, but we should be under no doubt that this is still very much an anti-trade union Bill.
This Bill is designed to curtail the expression, capacity and effectiveness of free trade unions in our country, and I must speculate about whether this is a genuine change of heart on behalf of the Government, or whether other factors may be involved in their consideration of how many fronts they can fight on at once. I wonder whether the proximity of 23 June and the referendum that will happen then have persuaded the Government that they should try not to engage in too large a conflict with the trade unions of this land, because they need their support in order to secure the Government’s position of staying in the EU. That is why we all want to see the words written down in black and white, rather than accept the spoken words of Ministers from the Dispatch Box at this time.
I am glad to say that the situation is different in Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) explained, the Scottish Government are committed to working in partnership with the trade unions of Scotland to try to build our economy towards prosperity. We believe that trade unions are a vital component of civil society. If my party is re-elected next week, we are pledged to do everything we can within the law to compromise the provisions of this Bill and to prevent them from frustrating the operation of free trade unions.
I shall engage with two further issues under consideration. The first is e-ballots. When the Government first announced their attitude to e-balloting, it sounded very much like an analogue Government in an digital age and that they were scared of the possibility of e-balloting. It is a matter of some irony, is it not, that it takes such a contemporary, modern and forward-looking institution as the House of Lords to try to persuade the Government of the error of their ways? I accept what the Minister said and I accept the Government’s position that they have moved slightly on this issue. They can no longer defend the indefensible, which would be to say that they would not allow electronic balloting in a society where it is now commonplace and the norm for most of our citizens.
I see you looking at me, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I shall try to be as quick as I can. We are concerned when the Minister tries to give himself a get-out clause. If he had come up with an amendment saying that e-balloting would go ahead unless it could be shown that there were clear and demonstrable problems for its introduction and roll-out, we might have had more sympathy with him. What he is trying to achieve, however, is to give himself a get-out clause to prevent this from happening in the future. In a post-referendum situation, he might not be so well disposed to favouring the trade unions.
The Minister also provided what I think is a thin defence when he spoke about this being a statutory matter. It is statutory only in the sense that trade unions operate within the framework of legislation—but so do charities, private companies and indeed political parties. As I say, I find that to be a very thin defence.
Finally, I want to make a point about the cap on facility time. I have witnessed some bizarre debates in this Chamber, but frankly, this one borders on the surreal. We are being asked to pass legislation to try to prevent something that the Minister accepts we do not even know exists. This is fantasy legislation and fantasy law-making. I think we should reject the proposal for a facility time cap, support the Lords amendments, reject the Government’s attempts to weaken them and, if we get the chance, finally vote against this anti-trade union legislation.
I shall be brief. I welcome the Government’s shift in position, particularly on check-off. I do not believe that check-off has any intrinsic costs to employers. For many public sector organisations, this is literally a check in a box on the payroll system. I view the shift of view as testament to the hard work of thousands of ordinary working people who take on additional responsibilities as shop stewards in their own time to support and protect their fellow workers’ rights—a task for which they are often thanked neither by their co-workers nor their employers, yet they sometimes go above and beyond in their role.
Trade unions have a proud history of internationalism, and tomorrow is International Workers Memorial day—a day strongly supported by the TUC, the trade union movement as a whole, lawyers and the Health and Safety Executive. I mention this because I shall not be able to attend tomorrow’s events. I would like to pay tribute to Herbert Styles, the former Unite representative and Blue Star Fibres worker who religiously organises this event sequentially in Immingham, Grimsby and Cleethorpes.
This is a growing event, with greater attendance every year by families who are deeply grateful for the work Herbert puts in. Time is taken to remember those who have lost their lives in the course of their day-to-day work. I shall not be there to lay a wreath tomorrow, but Jonathan Spurr will be there in my place to do so. I would like to see this day recorded on our calendars. Can the Minister do anything to assist in recognising the role of trade unions and workers and those who lose their lives in the course of their day-to-day work. Can he help to get this recorded in calendars and diaries across the UK?
This is supposed to be about modernising —that is the word the Minister used—ballots, but it is really about trying to limit people’s ability to take strike action. Let us be honest: he knows that if electronic balloting was allowed, the turnouts would go up, way beyond the limits set out. The lights have come on in the Conservative party and it has realised that it has set itself a trap and walked into it. In a situation where the Government are trying to stop people being able to take industrial action by setting ludicrous limits, they have set a precedent and had a debate that says, “If you are genuine, let us have as many people participating as possible.” Let us look at the history on this issue. In the 1980s, the Tory Government tried to control the right of people to take legitimate industrial action under the law and were told, “If you do away with workforce ballots, you will reduce the turnout.” The facts and figures have proved that for more than 30 years; the average turnout in workplace ballots was 80% but now if you get 40% you are doing well.
The proposals on facility time show the real ignorance of the Conservative party, tied to its arrogance; it just does not know what goes on in the workplace. Let me give two examples. In 1986, I spent every day for a fortnight visiting a man in hospital, 30 miles away from his workplace. He had been buried under 50 tonnes of coal and ultimately died, and we did not take evidence from him; we took what was used in a coroner’s case. Five years later, I was working for Newcastle City Council, encouraging home careworkers who had worked themselves into an early grave. I was saying, “Look, it is really in your interests to leave work on ill-health retirement agreements.” They would not talk to personnel officers because they were frightened of that sort of authority figure, but as a local trade union representative I was able to convince them it was the right thing for them to do and for the authority to do. We saved having to give people compulsory redundancy and we were helping to manage the system. Under what is being proposed now, the likes of me will no longer be there. There will be some clerk filling in forms to send down to London for a clerk there, and there will be thousands of these things. This really has to be stopped. It is nonsense and it should be thrown out.
My hon. Friend and I know, as does anybody who has been involved in these things, that for the past 50 or 60 years every Tory Government manifesto has had a clause attacking the trade unions. He referred to facility time, and the proposal shows how inexperienced Ministers are on industrial relations. Any major employer welcomes facility time as it saves them a lot of money in the end.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. If instead of talking to the TaxPayers Alliance to get information, the Government had spoken to any reasonable employer in this country or any trade union that deals day in, day out with this, they would have got a picture of the real story, not just some made-up attack on the trade union movement, which is what this is really all about.
I realise that time is short, so I shall be brief. Welcome as it is that the Government have been forced into a series of embarrassing U-turns, my party, which does not receive funding from the trade union movement, does not regard the Bill as a sensible attempt to look at some of the issues relating to party funding. Clearly, that should be done in the round and fairly, including looking at trade union funding, and we would support such an approach. This always set out to be a cynical, politically motivated Bill that undermines the important role that trade unions play in the democratic process. Encouragingly, Members in the other place have acted in a measured and cross-party way. Rather than simply striking down rafts of the Bill, as many would have liked—we would have liked to see that for some parts of the Bill—they have suggested cross-party, sensible and measured amendments.
Is it not amazing that a party that tells us all that it is in favour of the free market has in this case resorted to very high-handed regulation?
It certainly presents itself as an extremely draconian Bill whose drafting involved no collaboration of any kind.
I think that, welcome though it is, the Government’s change of heart has not gone far enough. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard): it is clear that the Government have realised that they cannot make enemies of the trade unions when they need the trade union movement in order to secure a “yes” vote—an “in” vote—in the EU referendum. I look forward to working with trade unionists, with the Government, and with members of all parties in seeking to achieve that.
Time is short. Let me end by saying that, given the Government’s welcome U-turn, we will not oppose the amendment. Nevertheless, the Government have simply failed to make the case that electronic voting is not a sensible, modern way forward, which exposes the fact this is really about trying to stop trade unions from reaching the threshold rather than sensibly reforming the system. Alongside others, we will continue to make the case for such reform.
I believe that the Government should think again about the attitude to trade unions that they have shown during this process, and should work together with parties.
Let me begin by drawing the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and to my membership of the GMB and Unison.
I want to make just one brief point, which relates to my earlier intervention about the Welsh Government. The Minister is placing the UK Government on a collision course with the Welsh Government in respect of facility time. The case will end up in the Supreme Court at great cost to the public purse, and the UK Government will—according to their own legal advice—lose. So I ask the Minister please to reconsider his approach to this part of the Bill.
Question put, That amendment (a) to Lords amendment 2 be made.
27 April 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Amendment (a) made to Lords amendment 2.
More than 90 minutes having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Amendment (b) made to Lords amendment 2.
Lords amendment 2, as amended, agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 17.—(Stephen Barclay.)
27 April 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Lords amendment 17 disagreed to.
Government amendments (a) to (c) made to the words so restored to the Bill.
Ballots: 40% support requirement in important public services
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
Lords amendments 3 to 6.
Lords amendments 7 and 8, Government motions to disagree, and Government amendments (k) to (p) in lieu.
Lords amendments 9 to 16 and 18 to 29.
The amendments improve the Bill and take account of a number of points of concern raised by Members of both this House and the other place. This is a raft of amendments, and I hope hon. Members will understand if I focus on the highlights in the order in which they appear in the Bill.
The 40% ballot threshold relates to strike action in important public services. The broad reference to “ancillary workers” has been removed and a “reasonable belief” defence for unions has been added. Those changes provide more clarity and certainty for unions and employers.
On the timing and duration of industrial action, the ballot mandate has been extended from four to six months, and to up to nine months where the union and the employer agree to that. That responds to concerns that four months was simply too short a time to enable both sides to resolve a dispute.
On the provision to provide two weeks’ notice of industrial action to an employer, the Bill now continues to allow for the current period of only seven days’ notice, where the employer and the trade union agree to that.
On picketing, there was great concern in this House, but less so in the House of Lords, about the Bill’s reference to “armbands”. That reference was taken from the original picketing code, which has been in force for a great deal of time. We do not want picket supervisors mistakenly believing that they must wear an armband. I hope that that will be welcome, particularly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is not in his seat, but who eloquently raised concerns about the issue.
The House debated at length the principle that union members should make an active choice to contribute to a trade union’s political fund. The other place established a Select Committee on Trade Union Political Funds and Political Party Funding under the chairmanship of Lord Burns, and I would like to place on record my gratitude to him and all the members of the Committee for their deliberations on this question.
The Bill has been amended to reflect the Select Committee’s recommendations on opting in. Our manifesto commitment suggested that we wanted to extend the opt-in principle for trade union members, and the revised provision meets that commitment. In future, all new trade union members will have to make an active choice to contribute to the political fund through an opt-in.
Our amendment corrects some legally defective drafting in the amendment tabled by Lord Burns and agreed to by the Lords. In particular, instead of the certification officer being given responsibility for issuing a code of practice, our amendment places a statutory obligation directly on unions to provide an annual reminder to existing members of their rights to opt out. That complements the position for new members, who will be required to be offered the right to opt in.
We have also improved requirements on unions to report details of political expenditure in their annual returns. That reflects the debates that we had about the importance of that issue in assisting union members to make informed decisions about whether to contribute to a union’s political fund. At the heart of the provision is transparency and proportionality.
The Bill has been amended to require reporting on all expenditure from a union’s political fund, including to causes and campaigns, but it also fixes what became characterised as the onerous obligation for the union to report on “every bus fare”. Instead, unions will be required to report on the total expenditure going to each political party or organisation in each of the categories.
Finally, the other place rightly agreed to increase parliamentary oversight of regulations that could seek to lower the reporting threshold once it has been raised and therefore increase the regulatory burden on trade unions.
On check-off, we had robust debates in this House, and there were equally robust debates in the other place. Those debates related to union subscriptions being deducted automatically from wages in the public sector. The Bill we welcome back to the House allows check off to continue where the costs are met by the trade unions and on the basis that union members have the option of paying subscriptions by other means. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who is not in his place, made an eloquent argument for an amendment on this very issue, and I indicated on Report that we would look at it closely as the Bill went through the House of Lords. I therefore hope that he is satisfied with the decision by the Government to accept this amendment. I pay tribute to him for his work, both privately and publicly, in making the case for this important change.
Our manifesto committed us to reforming the role of the certification officer. The Bill removes the requirement for the certification officer to be able to act in some areas only where a complaint has been received from a member of a trade union. Instead, the certification officer will be able to look into issues that come to his attention from third parties, or in the course of his duties. However, the provisions have been amended to increase the independence of the certification officer by ensuring that he is not subject to ministerial direction. As I have said previously, the certification officer is under no obligation to act on complaints or representations from third parties.
Nevertheless, concerns were raised that spurious or vexatious complaints could tie up the certification officer’s resources and, indeed, place an unfair burden on trade unions. The Bill has therefore been amended to require that the certification officer must have reasonable grounds to suspect a breach before appointing an inspector to conduct an investigation. I am confident that this will protect unions from vexatious complaints and over-zealous regulation. However, I am happy to assure hon. Members that we will keep this under review to see how it works out in practice. In response to human rights concerns, the judicial oversight of the certification officer has been strengthened. The Bill has been amended to allow appeals to the employment appeals tribunal on the certification officer’s decisions on the grounds of fact as well as law.
I hope that hon. Members will welcome the amendments. I believe that they improve the Bill, and I hope the House will see fit to accept them.
I call Kevan Jones.
I am sorry—Kevin Brennan.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is a great physical similarity between me and my hon. Friend, and it was entirely understandable on your part to mistake one for the other.
First, as I should have done when speaking on the previous group of amendments, I declare my membership of Unite the union and my very proud membership of the Musicians Union.
As the Minister said, the Government are accepting most of the amendments in this group. Due to the time constraints, I will not deal with all of them. He highlighted the significant changes, including on check-off, which we very much welcome. He will recall that during our debate on Report the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) tabled an amendment on these provisions. I pointed that out that it was extraordinary that a Conservative Government were seeking to make illegal a voluntary arrangement between parties, even where one party is paying for the service, when that arrangement is neither immoral nor illegal. That would have been an extraordinarily illiberal measure. I am glad that in their lordships’ House the Government gave way on this matter and it is no longer in the Bill. That is very welcome.
I welcome what the Minister said on the record about the certification officer. It is extremely important that the Government recognise the concerns that have been expressed about the potential for vexatious complaints by third parties and the tremendous waste of time that that could be for all concerned. I also welcome his comments on a review of how the provision works out in practice. Although, as I have made clear, we do not agree with what the Government are doing in relation to the certification officer, that is a welcome assurance, and I am glad that he has put it on the record here at this stage before the Bill goes back to the Lords.
Perhaps the most controversial and contentious element of the Bill has been the Government’s desire to create an opt-in process for trade union political funds. Lords amendments 7 and 8 relate to that. The original Government proposal meant that existing trade union members who pay into their union’s political fund would have to opt back into the fund, in writing, within three months of the Bill’s passage, and do so again after five years.
Let us imagine if every organisation in the country was required to get a recommitment to every standing order payable to it within three months and in writing. It would obviously result in only one thing: massive problems for that organisation, whether it was a bank, a voluntary group, any membership organisation or a subscription to a magazine. It was always clear to us that the proposal was utterly unworkable, and designed mainly to deprive unilaterally the governing party’s main political opponent—the Labour party—of an important source of funding. It seemed to be a pretty naked attempt to undermine effective opposition from the Labour party in this place and beyond.
That is why the House of Lords set up a special Select Committee to look at the matter, as the Minister said, under the able chairmanship of Lord Burns. We, too, are grateful for his efforts and those of his colleagues on the Committee and other Members of the House of Lords. We thank them—not only Labour peers but those from other parties and Cross Benchers—for approaching the issue in such an imaginative and collaborative way. I recognise, as did the House of Lords in its report, that the Government made a manifesto commitment to introduce opt-in. However, they made other manifesto commitments about big business and we have not yet seen much action on those, but we will leave that for the moment.
The Conservative party manifesto stated that it would introduce opt-in, and it was elected with an overall majority in the House of Commons, albeit on less than 40% of the vote. The Government have therefore been able to argue that the House of Lords should not remove opt-in from the Bill under the normal conventions that the other place follows. The Lords amendments are extremely skilfully drafted. The House of Lords has taken the view that opt-in should apply only to new members of a trade union, that there should be a longer period—at least 12 months—for trade unions to adjust their rules and procedures and that there should be no automatic requirement to opt-in again after five years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this will not be difficult for many trade unions because on their application forms to join, there is a box to tick to contribute to the political fund? As someone who ran a political fund, I know that that was the case in the GMB. Is this therefore not another example of proposed legislation that is not really needed?
Given that my hon. Friend has been physically mistaken for me, I am not surprised that our opinions are identical on this matter. I agree with him.
May I take my hon. Friend back to his comments about the work of the House of Lords? I echo the words of Lord Patrick Cormack, who was a Member of this House for 40 years. He said:
“But we do not have to advance on that at such a pace that we seriously disadvantage one of the great parties of the realm and unbalance our democracy in the process.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2016; Vol. 769, c. 1876.]
Does not that get to the nub of what this was all about—unbalancing democracy in this House and disadvantaging the Labour party? Lord Cormack was absolutely right. It is a shame that there are not more like him in the Conservative party in this House today.
I pay tribute to Lord Cormack for his work on the Bill and his words in the House of Lords. He might seem to some an unlikely hero of the working class, but in this instance he has reflected what one nation Conservatism should mean. That phrase is bandied about from time to time, but his interventions and those of other colleagues in the House of Lords remind us that we legislate not just for one Parliament but for the future. I will go on to describe why it would have been very dangerous if the Government had stuck to their original plans.
The House of Lords looked for a workable way for the Government to introduce their stated manifesto commitment without it becoming a crude and clumsy device to starve the second largest party in Parliament—the Labour party—of a long-standing source of finance from the very institutions that founded it. My hon. Friend just said this in another way, but I think that the Lords have done the Government a big favour. Had they proceeded with the original proposals, they would have created—make no mistake about it—a lasting bitterness and resentment in the trade union and Labour movement and, indeed, beyond. We are grateful for the support received from other political parties.
I have no doubt, as many of their lordships pointed out, and, indeed, as paragraph 130 of the House of Lords cross-party Select Committee report noted, that the original proposal would
“make the Labour Party more inclined to take unilateral action against the Conservative Party and its funding when next in government.”
It appears that, at this very late hour, that point has hit home with Ministers, and I very much welcome that.
The Government have decided to think again about their proposals on political fund opt-ins and have tabled amendments (k) to (n) to replace Lords amendments 7 and 8. The requirement to opt into political funds will apply only to new union members. As a result, union members who have already voluntarily agreed to make contributions will not be required to opt in again to support ongoing trade union campaigns. Existing members will be required to opt in only if their union votes to establish a political fund for the first time. The Government have also conceded on the issue of five years and have allowed for a minimum 12-month transition period for unions. Union members will be able to opt in or opt out not only on paper, but through electronic means, so it is now okay to use electronic means to opt in—we will eventually get it to apply to ballots—including online forms, emails and, potentially, texts. Unions will still be required to remind members annually of their right to opt out and they can do so by using individual communications or through their usual systems for informing members, including union newsletters and notice boards.
The Government’s amendments take on board all of the core elements in the proposals made by Lord Burns’s Committee’s report, and I remind the House that it passed the Lords by 320 votes to 172. It therefore passed by an even greater majority than that which set up the Select Committee in the first place, which demonstrates the growing support for this approach.
I still believe that the proposals for an opt-in system for political funds are totally unnecessary—that should be put on the record—but we recognise that the Government’s new proposal is a substantial improvement on the original Bill, which would have required all members to opt in within three months and to renew that opt-in within five years. On that basis, while retaining our opposition to the Bill in general and to opt-in in particular, we will not seek to divide the House on the Government amendments, given the substantial concessions they have made.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the clear intention behind the move from opt out to opt in is an attempt by some members of the Conservative party to attack the funding of the Labour party. Does he agree, however, that our defence of the right of trade unions to engage in political activity will be more effective if we ensure that they are able to engage not just in activity to support the Labour party, but in other political action that achieves change and support, whichever party they feel serves their members’ best interests?
It is accepted that there is a special relationship between the Labour party and the trade union movement, which founded the party. Of course, they use political funds to campaign in all sorts of way. I am grateful to all parties that have recognised the importance to our constitution of the political funds of trade unions and the vital role they play in our democracy. Trade union money is the cleanest money in politics, compared with some of the sources of money and donations to political parties, and long may that continue.
I do not want to detain the House for much longer, but it would be remiss of me not to conclude without paying tribute to all those who have made this change possible and worked so hard to improve this dreadful Bill. I include all my hon. Friends in our BIS Front-Bench team, including my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State; former members of that Front-Bench team who helped at earlier stages of the Bill; Members from other parties in the House who have helped to fight the good fight; and my hon. Friends in the Labour party.
I want to pay special tribute to my good friend Baroness Smith of Basildon and her team in the Lords—Baroness Hayter, Lord Stevenson and Lord Mendelsohn —as well as all the other peers from other parties and from no party at all who voted to create the Select Committee and who worked so diligently and expertly to get us to where we are today.
It is said that our constitution means that the Opposition have their say but the Government get their way. In this instance, the Opposition have had their say and, at least in part, also got their way. As a result, the legislation has had some of the most pernicious edges knocked off, even if it remains a pig’s ear.
I welcome the work of the Lords, which my hon. Friend has just outlined. It is quite clear what the Bill is about. The Prime Minister talks about being a one nation Conservative, but he wants to be a one nation Conservative with one party—the Conservative party—at an advantage. If we want to understand Conservative Members’ disappointment, we have only to look at the Secretary of State’s face, which says it all.
There was no need for the legislation. It was based on a prejudice born of not understanding the way in which trade unions work, and it was an attempt to ensure that the Conservative party had not only a political advantage but a major financial one. The original requirement in the legislation for new trade union members to opt in would not have come as any great surprise to trade unions. If the Minister takes the trouble to review some trade union application forms, he will see that they have a box on them, next to which is written: “If you want to pay the political levy, tick this box”. It is up to members whether they wish to do that, so the idea that that provision needs to be in the Bill is quite remarkable. We know what the provision was really intended to do, and we know the reason for the climbdown that we have seen. That climbdown has nothing to do with the Trade Union Bill; it has to do with the Prime Minister’s realisation that if he wants millions of trade unionists to vote yes in the EU referendum, he will have to keep them on side. As we often see in politics, the coming together of events has been of benefit and has defeated that bit of pernicious legislation. If it had gone through, as the House of Lords said in the Select Committee report, it would have given the Conservative party an advantage in political funding.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) when he says that trade union money is as clean as any type of money. There is transparency about how it is spent, and it is regulated. The same cannot be said of the way in which funding comes to the Conservative party, whether it be through dining clubs or unincorporated associations, which are a way of masking the true source of donations. I look forward to the Government’s bringing forward legislation on the reform of party funding, including greater transparency about sources of funding. That is vital if we are to have an even playing field in terms of the ability to raise funds and the knowledge of where money comes from.
There is another side to this. The media have completely misunderstood the matter, and certainly the Minister—[Interruption.] I am sorry that I seem to be boring the Secretary of State, who is just leaving. He is obviously not very happy about the fact that one of his flagship pieces of legislation is in tatters. The clear impression given by the Conservative party and its supporters is that every single trade union that has a political fund donates it all to the Labour party, but that is simply not the case. Many are not affiliated to the Labour party, and many make no donations at all to any political party. Having run a political fund for the GMB, I know that the proportion that goes to the Labour party is small compared with the proportion that is spent on campaigning work. That allows the union not only to campaign on political issues, but to have a say, quite rightly, on things such as health and safety legislation or reorganisations of hospitals and other institutions. Without the political fund, the union would not be able to do that. The proposal would not only have taken away from my party the ability to receive money from trade unions, but would have hampered trade unions from taking part in civic life in this country, as they are quite right to do, through having a voice and making sure that their members’ collective voice is heard in consultations on whatever affects them directly.
Another big misconception is the idea that once people have ticked the box for paying a political levy, they are somehow locked in forever. I am sorry, but that is not the case. I used to deal every day of the week with people who, having been a member for a while, chose for whatever reason to opt out. There is a clear mechanism, in most trade unions, for people to do that. The idea that people are being forced to give money against their will, is just not the case. As I said earlier, when people join and fill in an application form, they take a conscious decision to tick whether they want to pay the political levy. Again, this provision is not really needed, but is based on both the ignorance of Conservative Members and the vindictiveness of a section of their party. When they won the general election in 2015, they thought that they could just roll on and do anything they liked to the democratic processes of this country.
The provision on check-off is another useless piece of legislation, because many councils and organisations already choose to levy an administration fee for handling the check-off system. Again, I do not think that the provision will be very onerous on the many trade unions who already pay such a fee. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said earlier, this is a minor issue in that it does not involve a huge amount of money. If we are saying that trade unions should not be subsidised by the taxpayer in such a way, that is fine, but in many cases trade unions are already not being subsidised, so this is another provision that is not needed.
It is really important to calculate the real cost of check-off. The cost is absolutely nominal, and many trade unions are actually subsidising local authorities, the NHS and other public bodies with the amount that they pay for the levy.
I agree. This shows my age, but the process used to have to be done manually, which meant that there was a cost. My hon. Friend is quite right that, with modern-day computer payroll systems, for example, the cost is very difficult to determine.
I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West, oppose the Bill as a whole, but given the compromise that we have got because of the EU referendum, we are in a good place. However, I would just issue a final warning. I hope Conservative Members will not, once the EU referendum is over, bring in legislation to fill in what has been left out of the Bill. That would not only be another attack on trade unions, which are among the most highly regulated sectors in our country, but would show the vindictiveness that still exists in a section of the Conservative party. I look forward to the introduction, not long after June, of a Bill exploring total transparency in party funding in this country. If trade unions can have openness in terms of their money, we should decide it is time for other donations to political parties to have the same type of scrutiny and transparency, so that people can make up their own minds when they go to the ballot box.
I apologise to Chris Stephens. I should have called him before the last speaker.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I agree with many of the points he made.
SNP Members have always opposed the Government’s proposals on trade union political funds for the simple reason that it should be up to trade union members to decide where their money goes. It is up to them to decide whether they should support one political party or another, or whether they should sponsor individual candidates, as has happened in some cases, rather than work for a particular political party.
I emphasise the point that this is an attack not just on the Labour party but on the ability of a trade union to organise effectively across a community. Political funds have done great community work, health and safety campaigning, and anti-racism campaigning, sponsoring organisations such as Hope not Hate and Show Racism the Red Card. There is also charity work and international work—trade unions do fantastic work across the world.
It will come as no great surprise to any trade unionist that the change on check-off is not a major one. Unison has said that it has 11,000 different agreements where it contributes to the cost of check-off. We welcome the Government’s U-turn on that.
I have participated in proceedings at every stage of the Bill’s progress. I will say a few words about that. If the voices of those with experience of a trade unionised workplace and those with a trade union background had been listened to and heeded, we would not be where we are now. There perhaps would not even have been a Trade Union Bill. Many Opposition Members have pointed out on a regular basis how unnecessary and unwanted this legislation is.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I declare an interest as a member of Unison and of the Community trade union, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I should also say that although I am a member of those unions, I have very good employers in the people of Ilford North and do not anticipate going on strike any time soon.
The Government’s concessions are welcome, but it is something of an irony that it has fallen to the unelected House to defend some of the most democratic elements of trade unions and their commitment to democratic life in the country. For some reason, this Government, who were elected with a slender majority of just 12, seem to think that that majority gives them carte blanche to trample all over the democratic traditions, values and heritage of our country.
It is not just the brazen attack on party political funding, and the Labour party in particular, that the Government have embarked upon with this Bill. Look at their record in the short time that they have governed as a single party. They have sought to rig the House of Commons, pack the House of Lords, gag charities and civil society, and restrict trade unions. This Sunday, new restrictions kick in on any publicly funded body, restrictions that have the potential to gag all sorts of people, including academics. It is a complete dog’s breakfast of a proposal. We will see what the higher education Bill says later this year; the Government will undoubtedly try to have another go at student unions, like they did in the 1990s.
I have been listening to the Minister this afternoon, and in particular, to what he said about the previous group of Government measures, which unfortunately passed, underlining why the Bill should still be opposed. There can be no decent evidence-based argument against trialling electronic balloting for trade union industrial actions and proposals to strike. The Minister himself could not offer a single shred of evidence to argue against a simple trial.
The Bill has really been about delegitimising trade unions. Whenever people go on strike and take industrial action the Government want to be able to say that a hard rump of activists have prompted it. But even the measures in the Bill would not have stopped the junior doctors or London transport workers going on strike. The turnout in both cases exceeded the threshold in the Bill. If the Government are serious about trade unions having broader and greater democratic legitimacy, they should unshackle the hands of trade union leaders and activists, so that they can do what they want to do and have asked to do, namely enter the 21st century by having electronic balloting.
We also had the farce about facility time. That goes to the heart of the Government’s fundamental misunderstanding of the role of trade unions. Full-time reps and staff who are let off part time for facility time play a valuable role in good industrial relations. They take up cases on behalf of their members, and ensure that they are well represented and supported. They advise employers on how to improve the workplace environment. Where there are good industrial relations, with trade unions and employers working together, the likelihood of a strike is lessened, and the workplace environment is better for everyone.
Is another key role for trade unions that of welfare, and giving workers assistance and help that they might not know about?
I wholeheartedly agree. The hon. Gentleman speaks with great experience from his own background in the trade union movement, and good employers value that working relationship with trade unions. When I speak to trade union members—whether in my local authority where I am an elected member of the London Borough of Redbridge, or representatives in other workplaces—they tell me that they do not have excessive facility time; often they do not have enough. They struggle to cope with caseloads, particularly when there are major changes to employment involving terms and conditions or staff numbers. That generates a huge burden and workload, and I do not think that the Government appreciate or value that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is only thanks to trade unions campaigning and funding legal action that millions of people have received rightful compensation for industrial injuries such as mesothelioma, or that there is the miners compensation scheme that was pioneered by the trade union movement? Without that, millions of people in this country who suffered through no fault of their own—apart from going to work—would not have received rightful compensation.
I wholeheartedly agree, and if we are honest, too often trade unions have to speak up for people who would otherwise not have a voice. Often, because of the failures of this place and different Governments over the years, trade unions have had to exercise pressure on behalf of their members, and exercise that muscle to ensure that Governments act to protect those who have been done a terrible injustice.
I speak as a former trade union lawyer who dealt with the legal cases that my hon. Friend referred to, and as an employer who benefited from having a unionised workplace to resolve issues and disagreements, and to get changes through companies. Without union representation in the workplace, that would have been much more difficult. Does my hon. Friend agree that we can see things from both sides?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have sat on the employer side of the table when working with trade unions more than I have sat on the side of employees, even though I have been a member of a trade union for as long as I have been in full-time work. Employers often value that relationship with trade unions. It is not an adversarial relationship—well, sometimes it can be, and the breakdown of industrial relations, particularly when strike action occurs, is a sign of failure. When people choose to strike they lose their pay, so they do not do it lightly. Many families struggle to balance their budgets at the end of the month, with too much month and not enough money left, so losing a couple of days’ pay is often a real hardship. They do not take such action lightly, and that is not understood enough when we speak in glib terms in this place about trade union industrial action.
I listened to what the Minister said about concessions that have been made, and how no changes will be made to facility time for a few years until we have done all the counting and assessment, but how long will that take, and how much money and civil service time will it cost? Bizarrely, the Government will waste time counting trade union facility time for employers up and down the country, but they will not count the number of children in poverty. That tells us all we need to know about this Government’s wrong-headed priorities, and about the timewasting involved in introducing this Bill in the first place. I congratulate Members of the House of Lords—where the Government do not have a majority—on the way that they have torn this Bill apart and exposed it to forensic scrutiny, and we heard expertise from across the political spectrum.
The Bill also received forensic scrutiny in the House of Commons, but we could not win any votes.
My hon. Friend has pre-empted me. I was about to congratulate not just my Front-Bench colleagues on their diligent work, but also my colleagues on the Bill Committee. I followed some of the sessions and read the evidence, and there was forensic scrutiny. The Government’s arguments did not stack up, and many of us have come to this Chamber time and again to get them to rethink.
The Government have done some rethinking, but I share the cynicism of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that this probably has more to do with the fact that the penny has dropped for the Prime Minister, who has realised that trade unions play an important role not only in the workplace, but in the life of our democracy. He is probably counting on those trade unions to make a positive case for Britain to remain in the European Union because of all the benefits it brings to people’s rights at work. Many of those rights would not be enjoyed, if it were not for the pressure that trade unions bring to bear, whether it be on this Parliament, the European Parliament or the European Commission. We should celebrate the work of trade unions and end this futile denigration of their work. This Bill in its current form, even as amended, should not be supported.
I would like to put on record the fact that I am a member of the GMB union. It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), whom I commend for his long-standing commitment to this issue and for his work on the Bill.
Trade unions are a vital part of a free and democratic society, with a proud history of working hard on behalf of their members to achieve fair and just outcomes. Their roots lie in the industrial revolution, but their aims and aspirations are just as important to the 21st century context of an increasingly digital workforce, the European marketplace, globalisation, the challenges presented by an ageing population and the need for highly skilled workers to deliver the higher-skilled, higher-waged workforce that we need and aspire to in the UK.
My constituency is rich in small and medium-sized enterprises, and I want to see a vibrant local economy, providing high-quality services, well-paid jobs, excellent apprenticeship schemes and clear routes for progression in the workplace for those who want to develop their career. Trade unions have as much a role to play now as they did when they were first created in a very different employment and economic environment.
I want to share some examples of the positive differences unions have made and continue to make in my constituency. As a councillor, I was proud to vote for Southwark Council to adopt Unison’s ethical care charter—a commitment to dignity and respect for those who work so hard on behalf of vulnerable residents. The ethical care charter delivers better terms and conditions for care workers, but just as importantly, it delivers better standards of care for vulnerable residents by providing minimum visit times, paid time for travel and a commitment to training. Paying the London living wage for home care workers has resulted in higher-quality applicants working in this vital service, as well as a better quality of life for carers and their families.
BECTU—the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union—has fought a hard campaign for its members working at Picturehouse cinemas in my constituency. The campaign started at the Ritzy in Brixton and has extended to the new East Dulwich Picturehouse and the West Norwood Picturehouse, which will open next year. It is an excellent example of a modern trade union campaign, generating huge support among local residents and customers via social media. This campaign has achieved significant progress in driving up rates of pay for Picturehouse staff by 26% over three years, but there is more to do to achieve the goal of ensuring that all staff receive the London living wage—work that is hampered in part by the approach of Picturehouse and its parent company Cineworld in refusing to recognise BECTU in some branches in favour of internal staff forums, which is a practice that should not be allowed.
Last week, I attended the launch of an important new campaign by Unison, “Making waves for a Living Wage”, calling for the water industry in the UK to become the first sector to be fully living wage accredited. This campaign has already succeeded in persuading several water companies to progress towards living wage accreditation—and in some cases to achieve it. It is an achievable, practical campaign, which the water companies can afford to implement and which will have huge benefits for low-paid staff working in this sector. It is a great example of the positive difference unions can and do make.
The Unison campaign on the living wage provides a perfect example. We would not have had a living wage campaign without the trade unions setting up the wider campaign in the first place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Only yesterday, I was encouraged to see so many local NHS staff who are members of trade unions, including the GMB, Unite and Unison, coming out during their lunchbreak to show their support for the BMA and the junior doctors’ strike. They know that it is only by working together as one team—doctors, nurses, therapists, technicians, receptionists and cleaners—that our wonderful NHS delivers the world-class healthcare that it was set up to do.
Union members across the country know that industrial relations work best when there is a professional and respectful relationship between employers and employees. Change is often needed in response to changes in the economy, policy or legislation, or when particular injustices arise, and it is often best achieved by different parties—unions, employers and consumer groups—coming around the table to negotiate, work together and resolve differences or develop new practices. The situations we never hear about, but which are much more common, are those where there was no strike action and a settlement was reached through effective joint working. Such effective working relies on an even balance of power between different parties. This divisive and mean-spirited Bill seeks to shift the balance of power in a way that can have only negative consequences. It is right that negotiation and positive joint working take place in every possible circumstance, but in the rare instances where all other avenues have been exhausted—for example, when a Secretary of State for Health rejects out of hand every compromise offer he is asked to consider—the right to withdraw labour by taking strike action is an essential right, and its existence can often be the very thing that focuses minds on all sides on achieving effective negotiations.
The Government’s change of heart on opting in to unions’ political funds and check-off is welcome, but it reveals the extent to which the Bill is politically motivated. It is completely unacceptable that the Government are applying double standards to the turnout required for a strike ballot by expecting a much higher turnout of union members than they would accept as providing legitimacy for their own Members of Parliament or indeed for the election of councillors, whom they accept as having democratic legitimacy. MPs are not, by rule, required to be elected by more than half of the eligible residents living in their constituency, and this is even less likely to be the case for councillors. In an age where the Government are rightly encouraging the greater use of digital services and technologies, it must be right that there should be the ability to vote electronically, with the oversight of the Electoral Commission. What is considered good and fair for the Conservatives in selecting their candidate for London’s Mayor must be considered good and fair for union members in casting their votes on critical issues. It is very disappointing that the Government have not accepted Lords amendments on this matter. They are applying a mixture of different standards to trade unions, refusing to implement e-balloting to maintain consistency with public elections but requiring an even higher turnout threshold than that required for public elections. The Government therefore appear to be picking and choosing standards to suit their own political ends. They appear now to be trying to unravel some of the mess, but it would be better simply to scrap this Bill.
I will not detain the House for long, as it has been a long day. I just want to remind the House that in this place it has consistently been the Liberal Democrats who have called for a proper reform of the party funding system. We have done that fairly and equitably, looking at the issues relating to funding from big business and from wealthy private donors, as well as the issues with trade union funding. It has been frustrating, even in my 11 years in Parliament, that that has been frustrated at times by the Conservative party and at times by the Labour party, with both acting in their own self-interest, seeking to preserve their own sources of funding while seeking to deal with the other’s. The Bill is still clearly doing that today and it is the wrong approach.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but his party is not clean on this, given the money it accepted from Brown, who was found to be a fraud. So I do not think the hon. Gentleman should be lecturing others about transparency in party funding.
I respect the hon. Gentleman, but that is a poor comment, given that I am talking about the party funding system. As he knows full well, issues have arisen for all parties with various donations that were accepted in a reasonable way and later found to have question marks about them. That is one reason we need to deal with this, but it is about the system and so his comments do him no favours on this occasion.
I warmly welcome the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), another Member of a party outside the two-party system that we have had in the past, but which is now gone in British politics. He said that although it is right that trade unions use their funding for political campaigning to stand up for the rights of their workers and important rights for British people, that is not the same thing as simply funnelling money to the Labour party to win elections.
I have a very interesting perspective on the matter. During my first five years as the proud, new, and perhaps in some ways slightly naive MP for Leeds North West, I found myself courted regularly by my local trade unions. I got on with them very well. As for their agenda, they told me consistently how disgusted they were with what Tony Blair’s new Labour Government were doing to workers’ rights and trade unions, and sought my Liberal Democrat support. I was only too happy to give that support, and to work with them.
I subsequently became lead member of Leeds City Council, and had direct and very strong relationships with my local trade union representatives—but then came the 2010 general election, and despite all that, and despite their disdain for Tony Blair and new Labour, they paid for billboards to go up in my constituency saying “Please vote for your local new Labour candidate”. That is not what I think hard-working trade union members paying into a political fund expect, and I think that it should be looked into by the trade union movement and by the Labour party.
Ultimately, we need to move to a system of transparency. I agree with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) in one respect: he made the sensible point that we should be doing all this together rather than through what is clearly a cynical Bill, and indeed a cynical attack on the main source of funding for the Labour party. I do not support that, although I have spoken of the need for a greater differential between funds for the Labour party and funds for political campaigns that may, from time to time, be supported by other parties—indeed, potentially all parties, and even Conservative Back Benchers.
We also need more transparency when it comes to the very shady organisations that funnel money from companies and private donors and pass it on without always revealing who those donors are. That arrangement is clearly unacceptable and needs to be reformed, but, again, all of us—all the parties in the House—must reform it together. The Bill does not provide for that, but we will continue to do it.
I am proud that it was the Liberal Democrats who pushed for a House of Lords Select Committee to lead recommendations on party funding reform, and that it was that Committee which twisted the Government’s arm so that they came up with these U-turns. We think that that is sensible, as it saves the trade unions the clearly unfair and unnecessary administrative burden of having to contact all their existing members who signed up on the existing basis.
I look forward to continuing this discussion in the right place and in the right framework—not in the context of this divisive Bill, but in the context of proper cross-party discussions about how we can finally, and properly, reform party funding as a whole. We will participate fully in those discussions, and we look forward to working with Members in all parts of the House.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 3 to 6 agreed to.
Lords amendments 7 and 8 disagreed to.
Government amendments (k) to (p) made in lieu of Lords amendments 7 and 8.
Lords amendments 9 to 16 and 18 to 29 agreed to.