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Trade Union Bill (Discussions)

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 28 April 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will instruct his adviser on ministerial interests to launch an inquiry as to whether discussions between Ministers and officials and representatives of trade unions or the Labour party concerning amendments to the Trade Union Bill constitute a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

The Cabinet Office has advised me that there is no breach of the ministerial code and nothing for the Prime Minister’s adviser on ministerial interests to investigate.

The Trade Union Bill is now in ping-pong and, as is customary at such times, Ministers have held regular discussions with shadow Ministers to discuss possible compromises that would secure passage of the Bill and delivery of the commitments made in the Conservative party’s manifesto. On the basis of the amendments passed by this House yesterday evening, I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are well on the way to securing all our manifesto commitments—ballot thresholds for strikes, reforms to the role of the certification officer, a tightening-up of rules around facility time, action to stop intimidation of non-striking workers, and the introduction of a transparent opt-in process for union members’ contributions to political funds.

The question of compulsory opt-in to trade unions’ political funds was one of the most contentious, especially in the House of Lords. Noble Lords referred the clauses in the Bill to a special Select Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Burns. Following the Select Committee’s report, the House of Lords voted by a large majority to accept an amendment to restrict the opt-in to new members and to exclude existing trade union members.

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I hold regular meetings with trade union leaders and the general secretary of the TUC, not just in relation to the Bill, but in relation to other responsibilities of mine, including our support for the excellent work of Unionlearn.

Trade union support for the campaign to remain in the European Union is not new and should not come as a surprise to anyone. The TUC declared its support for the campaign in February. The GMB union did the same on 22 February, Unite on 14 March and Unison on 13 April.

We all remember the Prime Minister foretelling that the next great scandal would be a lobbying scandal, and here it is. Trade union leaders have been complaining that they are unable to campaign effectively for a remain vote in the EU referendum while the Government’s Trade Union Bill has been threatening trade unions and their funding. The Bill would have implemented a Conservative manifesto commitment to

“legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions”.

As a result of the amendment being accepted, a 19-year-old who has just started a job and is a member of a trade union will now never be asked by a trade union whether he wants his political fund subscriptions to be taken out of his pay packet.

The Prime Minister told the House of Commons on 15 July last year:

“There is a very simple principle here: giving money to a party should be an act of free will. Money should not be taken out of people’s pay packets without them being told about it properly”—[Official Report, 15 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 885.]

and he likened that to mis-selling. On 16 March, the Minister in the other place described the Labour amendment, which the Government have now accepted, as a “wrecking amendment”. Yesterday, the Minister made a wholly unexpected concession when he announced his decision to abandon opposition to the change in the Bill.

It is now being reported on Channel 4 News and in today’s papers that those unexpected concessions are linked to a £1.7 million donation that trade unions might make from their political funds, which are now much larger than they would have been, to the Labour remain campaign, Labour In For Britain. Until recently, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) was trying to raise £75,000 for a few leaflets, balloons and badges; now the campaign is getting £1.7 million. It has been confirmed to me by more than two independent sources that No. 10 instructed those concessions to be made after discussions with trade union representatives. That being true would amount to the sale of Government policy for cash and political favours.

Lest there be any doubt about the impropriety of this deal, Her Majesty’s Opposition should ask themselves this question: what would they be saying if this Government had altered a Bill in order to give extra money to the Conservative party or to the Conservatives’ remain campaign, Conservatives In? My hon. Friend the Minister should ask himself this question: what would have been the reaction if a Labour Government had changed a Bill in order to favour the Labour party’s ability to support the Government on some controversial policy and in order to give the Labour party money? This stinks—it reeks the same as cash for questions. This shows that this Government really are at the rotten heart of the European Union.

The seven principles of public life require public office holders to

“avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence…their work.”

The ministerial code states:

“Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises”,

or appears to arise,

“between their public duties and their private interests”.

In this matter, the Labour party constitutes one of their private interests.

Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister instruct his adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan, to launch an investigation? If my hon. Friend the Minister and the Cabinet Office are right, he has nothing to fear from such an investigation.

May I start by saying that I have the greatest respect for the passion and commitment, which have lasted for not just years but decades, that my hon. Friend has brought to the cause he advocates with such vigour—that we leave the European Union? I have nothing but total respect for that passion and commitment.

I just want gently to correct my hon. Friend on a few points of fact, because he focused so much on the important question he raised that a number of the things he suggested about the current mechanism for union members’ subscriptions to the political fund were not absolutely correct.

The first point to make is that it is not the case that somebody who has recently joined a trade union, and to whom the new requirement for an opt-in will therefore not apply, will never be asked whether they want to pay into the political levy—very far from it. There is a long-standing legal requirement that they are offered an opt-out from that political levy and that that is communicated clearly to them. That opt-out is not just a one-time thing; it is not something they are offered only when they join—it is something they can exercise at any time, and they need to be reminded of it regularly.

The other thing to say is that, while estimates from different unions vary, the overall estimate is that roughly 13% to 14% of all trade union members joined in the last year. I am not going to suggest that all trade union members will have needed to opt in to the political fund over this Parliament, but a substantial proportion will have.

I am afraid my hon. Friend is also not correct to say that we are talking about a Labour amendment. The amendment was moved by Lord Burns—somebody for whom I know my hon. Friend has the greatest respect, as a fearsomely independent former permanent secretary. The amendment flowed out of a Committee in which there was some very fearsome representation of all parties. It was clearly inspired by Lord Burns’s argument that it is not reasonable to ask people who have signed up to an arrangement in good faith then to have to sign up again through a different process simply because we have changed the law later on. I did not agree with that argument, and nor did we in this House, but what happened often happens when the House of Lords feels very, very strongly on an issue, when there is a very, very large majority against the Government’s position, and when an Independent Member of the House of Lords has moved an amendment that has secured support not just from the official Opposition and from the Liberal Democrats but from a huge number of Cross Benchers—and not just from Cross Benchers but some very significant members of our own party.

I urge my hon. Friend to look at the people who spoke in the debate and voted, or very assertively chose not to vote, in support of the Government’s position. They included not just Lord Cormack and Lord Balfe but Lord Forsyth, who supports the same campaign on the European Union that my hon. Friend has supported and who, both privately and publicly, said that he thought it was a profound error for us to pursue a compulsory opt-in for all existing members. So it is not right to say that it was just a Labour position.

My hon. Friend suggested that it was inappropriate for the Government to do anything in terms of making changes to legislation to further private interests, and of course he is right. However, it is not right, and not even in the passion of the moment is it fair, to categorise the official policy of Her Majesty’s Government in that way. We support the proposition that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. He disagrees, honourably and valiantly, but it is not a private interest—it is Government policy.

It is very good to have this further opportunity to re-emphasise our implacable opposition to the execrable Trade Union Bill, which is entirely unnecessary, bad for workers, and bad for businesses. As the Minister said, the Lords set up a cross-party Committee chaired by Lord Burns to look at the unworkable proposals on trade union political funds and party political funding. That Committee came up with a series of Salisbury-convention-compliant recommendations that were voted for by an overwhelming majority of peers from all parties and from none.

Will the Minister confirm that he recently met Lord Burns, who made clear the strength of feeling in the other place on this matter? Will he also confirm that he has received overwhelming representations from all quarters, including the trade unions? By the way, it is hardly surprising, given that this is the Trade Union Bill, that he should receive representations from the unions. Is it not the case that all these various representations made it clear that the proposals on political funding were unworkable and breached the long-established convention that major changes to the funding of a political party should happen only by agreement?

It would appear, at least partially that the Minister listened—well done—but he should have listened earlier, and he needs to keep listening. Will he therefore have a few more meetings with trade unions, which have made entirely reasonable proposals on e-balloting and facility time that still remain in the Bill? There is still time for him to think again.

I can confirm that, as the hon. Gentleman said, earlier this week I held a meeting, at my request, with Lord Burns in which I discussed with him an amendment to the Bill that we had put down and were intending to move. That amendment would still have applied the compulsory opt-in to existing members of trade unions but would have built a longer period of transition for trade unions to implement it and would also have changed the arrangements on the requirement for renewal of their opt-in to align it with the political fund ballots that need to take place every 10 years.

I had hoped that Lord Burns would feel, if not enthusiastic about that compromise, at least able to indicate that he would not actively oppose it when the Bill went back to the upper House in the next stage of ping-pong. Lord Burns, who is a man for whom I have huge admiration and a great deal of liking, was very clear to me that that was not an acceptable compromise and that not only would he not support it, but he would actively propose the reinstatement of his amendment, which excluded existing members.

Lord Burns made it very clear that his judgment was not so much a political one—it was certainly not particularly inspired by questions about the balance of party funding. It was simply based on his experience in the financial services industry, where he said it was very unfair to ask people to sign up to new things when they have already expressed an opinion on that very same question by a means that was previously legal. He said that that applied in this case; he thought that it was wrong and he could not support it. We then reflected on Lord Burns’s position and tabled the amendments that we passed last night.

As for the comments made by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) about the rest of the Bill, I want to be very clear with him and other Labour Members: this Bill is going to dramatically improve the state of employment relations and the state of industrial action. At the moment, a trade union, including various education trade unions, can hold a strike three years after a ballot has been passed with a turnout of less than 20% of their members and close more than 1,000 colleges. That is currently legal. When the Bill—which will pass through this House with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin); I anticipate that the noble Lords will pass it next week—receives Royal Assent, it will no longer be possible to inflict on hard-working parents the closure of a school in the middle of the week on the basis of a tiny turnout secured several years ago. That is why I am proud of this Bill and why my hon. Friend can be proud of it: we have secured our manifesto commitments for all working people.

The Minister, regrettably, has been diverted from the path of procedural virtue as a result of the cheeky inquiries of the Opposition Front Bencher. We cannot now have a Third Reading of the Trade Union Bill. We must focus narrowly instead on the matter of the urgent question, which I know will be done faithfully by Dr Liam Fox.

Given this change to the Trade Union Bill, and following on from our abandonment of our manifesto commitments on immigration by not renegotiating free movement, will my hon. Friend tell us which of our election commitments we will not now abandon in trying to seek a remain vote?

Your cautionary tone is ringing in my ears, Mr Speaker, so I will answer my right hon. Friend’s question by narrowly focusing on the measures in the Bill that demonstrate, as I said at the start of my answer, that we have genuinely secured everything that was in our manifesto. This point came up in my discussion with Lord Burns, who really knows a thing or two about legislative drafting. Having read and re-read the precise words in our manifesto about the commitment to introduce a transparent opt-in for the political fund, he said that he was absolutely confident and very clear that the amendment that he tabled, which was passed in the other place and which we have now accepted, fulfilled that manifesto commitment in full; and not only that, but that the further introduction of the opt-in to apply to existing members was not given cover by the Salisbury convention, and that he would make that very plain in his speech in the upper House, if we were to try to restore that position. I mean no criticism of those who wrote our manifesto—it is a wonderful document that will live through the ages—but their wording was not so precisely established as to secure that additional application of the opt-in to existing members of trade unions.

We in the Scottish National party reiterate our complete opposition to the Trade Union Bill. Can the Minister confirm that it would be strange, on a piece of legislation that affects 6 million workers, for a Government not to consult bodies that represent those 6 million workers? Can he also confirm that the Government were considering concessions as far back as 26 January, when a memorandum in his name was leaked to many media outlets? Can he confirm what ongoing discussions he is having with devolved institutions, which still have major problems with the Bill and its extent as it relates to facility time and other issues?

The hon. Gentleman made a valuable contribution to our deliberations at all stages, but perhaps especially in Committee. I seem to remember that his criticism was both vocal and incisive on almost every measure in the Bill. Of course, he is right. Not only do we hold discussions with institutions in society about which we are legislating—I think it would be a little unfair if we did not—but we actually invited them to give evidence to the Committee. One of the most terrifying sights that I have seen in a long time was the general secretary of Unite, the general secretary of the GMB, the general secretary of Unison and the general secretary of the TUC all sitting in a row giving evidence to that Committee. Of course it was right to do that.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that we have consulted the devolved Administrations. I have had a number of conversations by phone and in person with Ministers in the devolved Governments, who have expressed some concern about whether all the provisions in the Bill should properly apply to them, although we are absolutely confident that all the provisions in the Bill relate to reserved matters and therefore apply to everyone and every trade union in the United Kingdom.

I chaired the Trade Union Bill Committee, and therefore I am not going to comment on the Trade Union Bill, but may I make a general House of Commons and constitutional point? There would be concern if, as part of the ping-pong process, any Government at any time made concessions on a Bill as a result of something that had nothing to do with that Bill. My hon. Friend is an honourable man, and I am sure that he can confirm that no Government of which he was a part would ever do that.

I think I have explained pretty clearly what the process was. I speak for myself in simply saying that when I met the immovable force of Lord Burns, I decided that perhaps discretion was the better part of valour. That is not to say that Ministers do not have discussions on all sorts of issues with all sorts of people in society. It is the Government’s policy to support the remain campaign. The previous general secretary of the TUC is a board member of Stronger In and has been for months. The trade unions that I have listed made their positions very clear long before the Bill came back to this House or, indeed, the opt-in was considered in the upper House. I gently say to my hon. and right hon. Friends that not every compromise is a conspiracy.

Now that the Government, according to the barmy idea that is being propagated this morning by the right wing of the Tory party, are seemingly prepared to give way on different subjects, can I ask the Minister: what is the price for dropping this lousy, rotten Trade Union Bill altogether? I will try to get it.

It is the goal of my life to give pleasure to the hon. Gentleman, but I have to tell him that there is no price, because we believe in this Bill. We believe in our manifesto, and we are well on the way to delivering it.

I hope that the Minister will understand why people are asking these questions when we read from a senior political journalist in The Telegraph the following words:

“Last night a union source said bosses had always been clear that it would be ‘difficult’ to spend significant amounts on the campaign to keep Britain in the union while fighting against the Trade Union Bill. But they revealed that unions will now step up their campaigning and funding efforts in light of the concessions”,

Can he confirm right now that this journalist is absolutely wrong, that her sources are incorrect and that no such trade took place?

I am afraid that I will just have to repeat what I have already said. There is a natural process towards the end of a parliamentary Session in which concessions are made on Bills to secure their timely passage. What trade unions decide to do about their long-standing commitment to back the remain campaign is entirely a matter for them.

I think this is a very rare occurrence of the Government actually listening to Members of Parliament both in the upper House and in this House. I welcome that, and it is the right thing to do. It is right that the Government should meet trade unions—of course they should. The legislation is an attack on trade unions and does nothing whatsoever for employee-employer relations. It is a wrecking piece of legislation, and any concessions can only improve the Bill. I hope we can have more concessions in the short time left for the Bill’s passage.

The right hon. Lady is far too kind to me. I did not want to listen at all. I am afraid I simply acknowledged that, faced by an array of forces—it is not just led by Lord Burns, but includes most of the Cross Benchers, all the Liberal Democrats, all the members of Labour party and very influential Conservative peers, such as Lord Forsyth, Lord Deben, Lord Balfe and Lord Cormack—neophytes in this game like me perhaps need to concede defeat.

As the grandson of a trade union shop steward who went on to become a Conservative activist and whose son made it to the other place, I can say to the Minister that he has had correspondence on this issue from Government Members raising the concerns of their constituents who also happen to be trade unionists. May I thank him for listening in relation to that correspondence and paying attention to it? It is a profoundly Conservative principle not just to get through the business in our manifesto, but to engage with the other place to improve it.

My hon. Friend’s father did not just make it to other place, but made it into the Cabinet and was a very significant performer in the area of employment law and industrial relations, so we have much to learn from his work. My hon. Friend is right. I hope it is not breaking a confidence to say that I have had conversations with other Members of the House who were deeply concerned about this specific provision. I should not mention their names, but they include very significant—in fact, leading—supporters of the campaign to leave the European Union.

May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) in congratulating the Minister on the way in which he has handled the Bill? Again, is it not the case that the Minister has had conversations with many people from all parts of the House, including on the Government Benches, both in the Commons and in the other place, about their concerns and that many of those concerns have now been addressed without any concessions at all being made to us?

I can confirm that, and none was more important than my hon. Friend, who had some very serious concerns. He did exactly the right thing: he came to see me privately about them as we were deliberating in the House. He tabled an amendment on Report, which he did not move because I had reassured him that we would look at closely as the Bill progressed. Yesterday, when he was not in the Chamber, I specifically mentioned that he had been influential in our decision ultimately not to press ahead with the measure that would have removed the check-off arrangement for trade unions in the public sector.

I declare an interest as someone who has paid the political fund levy since 1969, and is a former president of Unison and a member of the TUC general council. I assure the House that the trade unions are quite clear that they do not want the Bill at all. When the Government were pushing this Bill they were reminded that even Winston Churchill spoke against what they are trying to do. I will also say very clearly that, whatever gossip people are hearing, there is no doubt that the trade unions would have funded the Labour party’s remain campaign, because they realise that the people who the Prime Minister of this country described as swivel-eyed loonies and the other right-wing reactionaries who would deregulate this nation will be worse for working people. Whatever the outcome of the Bill, and even if it had not been changed at all, I am convinced that the trade unions would have been in that position on behalf of their members, putting their money where their mouth is.

This is a shabby political episode. The Government have been caught diluting trade union legislation to persuade the trade unions to come on board with the campaign to stay in the European Union. Is it not clear that the Government, big business, the big banks, the BBC and now the big trade unions are all ganging up on the British people to try to persuade them to stay in the European Union?

Nothing pains me more than to have angered my hon. Friend, as I clearly have. I have huge liking and respect for him; whenever he asks me to visit his constituency I drop everything to come, because I just think he is a great man. But I reject what he has said. Unlike in any other case, perhaps in this case he is blinded a little by his passion for the issue. I simply point out that all he need do is look at the front pages and editorial pages of every single newspaper that is traditionally seen as a Conservative supporter to see that there is a balance of opinion in this debate and his arguments are being well represented.

Given the impact the Bill will have on workers’ rights across the whole of the United Kingdom, what discussions has the Minister had with the devolved Administrations since the Lords amendments?

This is a very simple issue, on which the Minister could give a very straightforward answer. The allegation is that the Trade Union Bill was watered down for the benefit of the trade unions on the understanding that they would then make a considerable donation to the campaign to stay in the European Union. Will the Minister give us a clear denial, with the authority of the Dispatch Box, that any such discussions took place with Ministers or officials, and that in no way whatever was the watering down of the Bill done with any mention of funding from trade unions for the EU remain campaign? It is very simple for him to deny it if it is not true.

I aspire—and probably always will—to be as straightforward as my hon. Friend. I have been very clear: we went through a process of negotiation, not just with shadow Ministers but with members of other parties and none in the other House. We have secured a package that, I have to say, I do not believe any hon. Member on the Government Benches would have predicted; when we introduced the Bill, no one would have predicted that we would have secured as much of it as swiftly and as easily as we have, because it was probably the most politically controversial Bill in our original Queen’s Speech. As for decisions by trade unions to back the campaign for which they had already declared long before yesterday’s consideration of the amendments to the Bill, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) spoke very clearly when he said that the trade unions would have supported the campaign wholeheartedly and full-throatedly anyway, because they believe that it is in their interests and the interests of their members to do so.

I do not think that there was anything so grubby as a deal, but if an agreement was reached I congratulate the Opposition Chief Whip on showing how politics can be done. May I urge the Minister now to ask the private sector to follow the leadership of the trade unions and contact their employees to make the case for Europe and the terrible threats to jobs, investment and growth if we leave a single market of 500 million consumers?

I am not sure, Mr Speaker, whether you would count that question or my likely answer as directly relevant, but I will venture on until you stop me. It is clear that the overwhelming majority of businesses, small and large, have many beefs about the European Union—I do, too—but ultimately think that it is in our interests to stay. I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent, that I think all of us should be doing all we can, whether financially or in other ways, to encourage the people we represent to see that their interests are best protected by staying in.

The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) who asked this urgent question speaks passionately on behalf of his own union, which is the general and municipal union of Brexit bigots. [Hon. Members: “Order!”] It is extraordinary that he asked for the adviser on ministerial interests to be woken from his slumber—that adviser has been virtually unemployed since he was appointed, after the previous holder of the office, Sir Philip Mawer, resigned because he believed that he should have been called in to investigate the conduct of the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who gained absolution through resignation. As Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, why on earth is the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex not demanding an inquiry into the two Ministers who gave £3 million to Kids Company in the face of advice from civil servants, three days before it collapsed? It is because the office of the adviser has been degraded and politicised. [Interruption.]

Order. Calm down. Calm. The benefit of yoga, even for Ministers, should not be underestimated. Let me intercede briefly because there were calls of “Order” when the hon. Gentleman used a word about Members on the Government Back Benches. I did not intervene because I judge that to be a matter of taste. There is no imputation of dishonour and—I mean this in no unkind spirit—the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), and other likeminded souls, are perfectly capable of looking after themselves. Their honour has not been impugned in any way, and that is why I did not intervene. The remark stands, and the Minister must reply.

There are no bigots on the Government side of the House, least of all my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), or any hon. Friend who disagrees with me on this subject. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) does himself no credit by hurling that kind of playschool abuse across the Chamber. He is a disgrace, the comment was a disgrace, and he should withdraw it.

Order. The Minister is entitled to his view, but I hope the House will not take offence if I say that I will judge whether a remark needs to be withdrawn. With great force and eloquence the Minister has offered his view, and I respect him for that, but we will leave it there.

If I were to intervene on grounds of order every time a question is not answered, nothing else would ever happen in the Chamber.

I confess to a sense of bemusement at this urgent question, which seems to be little more than a contrived confluence of the pet prejudices of right-wing Tories, namely trade unions and the European Union. That said, I restate my absolute opposition to this Bill. Will the Minister confirm that trade unions remain a part of civil society and have an absolute right to make representations to the Government on behalf of their members, irrespective of what right-wing Conservative Back Benchers might wish?

Of course I confirm that, but the position governing strike action, the proper regulation of trade union activities with regard to finances and membership, and the position on picketing and intimidation of non-striking workers, were not acceptable until this Bill was introduced, and they will remain not acceptable until the Bill has secured Royal Assent. Of course I accept that trade unions have an important role in society, but they needed and will benefit from this reform. I put on record my gratitude to all my hon. Friends, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, for their support for the Bill.

Today is International Workers Memorial Day, which serves as a poignant reminder of why we need good and strong trade unions in our society. I also think it right that the trade union movement is opposed to many of the measures in the Bill, which is an attack on how it operates on behalf of its members. On the substantive point of the urgent question, the Bill is not yet legislation and has not been enacted. Surely the fact that a Labour-affiliated trade union has decided to donate some of its Labour-affiliated political fund to a Labour-supported campaign is perfectly within the law.

Points of order really come after statements. The hon. Gentleman has had a good run, and he should be patient. I am sure his point of order can be heard later, if it is sufficiently important to warrant either his staying in the Chamber or his returning to it.