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General Committees

Debated on Tuesday 31 January 2017

Delegated Legislation Committee

Draft Scottish Fiscal Commission Act 2016 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2017

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr James Gray

† Adams, Nigel (Selby and Ainsty) (Con)

† Anderson, Mr David (Blaydon) (Lab)

† Blackman, Kirsty (Aberdeen North) (SNP)

† Blenkinsop, Tom (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab)

Clwyd, Ann (Cynon Valley) (Lab)

† Ellis, Michael (Deputy Leader of the House of Commons)

† Hall, Luke (Thornbury and Yate) (Con)

† Hepburn, Mr Stephen (Jarrow) (Lab)

† Howell, John (Henley) (Con)

† Morris, David (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con)

Mullin, Roger (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

† Murray, Ian (Edinburgh South) (Lab)

† Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)

† Pickles, Sir Eric (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con)

† Smith, Jeff (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)

† Sturdy, Julian (York Outer) (Con)

† Thomas, Derek (St Ives) (Con)

† Wheeler, Heather (South Derbyshire) (Con)

Nehal Bradley-Depani, Rob Page, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 31 January 2017

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

Draft Scottish Fiscal Commission Act 2016 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2017

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Scottish Fiscal Commission Act 2016 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2017.

It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mr Gray. The draft order was laid before the House on 19 December 2016 and is made under section 104 of the Scotland Act 1998, which allows for necessary or expedient legislative provision in consequence of an Act of the Scottish Parliament. This order is therefore designed to assist the provisions of the Scottish Act of Parliament in question and is made in consequence of the Scottish Fiscal Commission Act 2016, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament on 10 March 2016 and received Royal Assent from Her Majesty on 14 April 2016.

The purpose of the 2016 Act was to establish the Scottish Fiscal Commission as a body corporate, to provide for its functions, set out in section 2, which include preparing forecasts and assessments to inform the Scottish budget, and, in section 11, to establish a duty to co-operate with the Office for Budget Responsibility so far as is necessary for it to perform its functions.

The commission was originally set up in 2014 as a non-statutory body with a main function of scrutinising the Scottish Government’s forecasts for tax revenues devolved to Scotland. The Scottish Government have since consulted on draft legislative provisions—the Scottish Fiscal Commission (Modification of Functions) Regulations 2017—to expand the commission’s functions and include areas devolved by the Scotland Act 2016. Those draft regulations were laid before the Scottish Parliament last week, on Friday 27 January, and are due to come into force on 1 April 2017.

The order, which will extend throughout the United Kingdom, will enable the Scottish Fiscal Commission Act 2016 to be implemented in full. It contains provisions about the status of the commission and amends UK legislation that is not within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. Article 2 of the order makes the commission part of the Scottish Administration, allowing for its designation as a non-ministerial department. The effect is that the commission will be accountable to the Scottish Parliament. Also, civil servants who work in the commission, which, as I said, is currently a non-statutory body, will transfer to the new statutory commission and continue to be civil servants. The civil service is a reserved matter under schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, so it is not within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament to enact such a transfer, and this measure regularises that wish as well.

Article 3 provides that the Crown Suits (Scotland) Act 1857 does not apply to the commission, with the effect that the Lord Advocate cannot sue or be sued in place of the commission. Article 4 places an obligation on the Office for Budget Responsibility to co-operate with the commission. That duty is reciprocal to the one that I mentioned in section 11 of the 2016 Act, so in effect the two bodies have to co-operate with each other. The OBR is required to enable information sharing so far as is necessary for the commission to fulfil its functions. Finally, article 5 amends the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 to disqualify members of the Scottish Fiscal Commission from being Members of the House of Commons. That is to protect the commission’s independence and impartiality.

The UK and Scottish Governments, Ministers and officials have worked closely together to ensure that the order makes the necessary amendments to UK legislation in consequence of the 2016 Act and the fiscal framework agreement between the UK and Scottish Governments. I hope that the Committee will agree that it represents a sensible and appropriate use of the powers in the Scotland Act and that it demonstrates the UK Government’s ongoing commitment to making the devolution settlement work. I commend the order to the Committee.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I wish to make a few brief remarks from the Back Benches. The order is certainly a step forward, which I welcome.

I am glad that both Governments have been able to come together to provide this independent scrutiny of Scottish Government finances, because for a long time the Scottish Government have been able to mark their own homework on revenues and expenditure. For the first time, there will be independent forecasts and analysis of the spending and revenues of the Scottish Parliament. That is incredibly significant, given that the Scotland Act 2016 turned the Scottish Parliament into one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. For the first time, it will be fully accountable for the money it has to raise and the spending it will do.

I pay credit to the former Chancellor for establishing the Office for Budget Responsibility at a UK level, because it shone a light on the forecasts for growth—although, as a small addendum, I would say that although it has shone a little on the forecasts for growth none of them has ever been right since the OBR was created in 2010. Setting that aside, it does give an independent forecast of how the UK economy is running, deficit, debt and all the other issues.

That is incredibly important in a Scottish context. The Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures produced by the Scottish Government every year show the position that Scotland is in—it is carrying a significant deficit, mainly because of the collapse in oil revenue—but when they publish the figures, they spend the next few weeks dismissing the very figures produced by their own officials. Something that is robust, independent and reports to the Scottish Parliament is very welcome in shining a light on some of those figures.

My only surprise when selected to be on this Committee to discuss the order was the fact that I tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill, which became the Scotland Act 2016, to deliver this very principle, which the Conservative and Scottish National parties voted against. That would have set this up an awful lot quicker and been in the Bill, rather than our having had to wait for this order.

I tabled that amendment to the Scotland Bill because the Smith commission recommended that the Scottish Parliament should seek to expand and strengthen independent scrutiny of its own finances, particularly when it had the gamut of income tax-raising powers and pretty much all of the moveable taxes now devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I am delighted that my amendment has finally come into law and I will take full credit for that—particularly in the media in Scotland—if that is acceptable to the Minister.

I thank the Minister for introducing this order and welcome it. I look forward to the body being set up and being transparent about Scottish expenditure and revenue, so that we can truly shine a light on the powers that the Scottish Parliament has at its disposal to change the lives of people who live in Scotland.

It is great to be on another Delegated Legislation Committee, as it seems I keep getting put on them—[Interruption.] I genuinely mean it. It is also great to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh South, who is always so political, although that is a shame when we could be really consensual on these matters.

It is sensible for the process to be this way around as we set up the Scottish Fiscal Commission. The Scottish Parliament is setting the body up and we are just tinkering with the additional legislation that is required. That is a reasonable way to do it if we are serious about ensuring that the Scottish Parliament is considered one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world, as the Government regularly say it is. We need to ensure that it has the ability to do the things within its power and that we simply pass the allowing legislation—the tinkering legislation—to allow that to happen.

On the importance of the Scottish Fiscal Commission and why we need it, given the challenges that we face and the changes that there have been to the powers of the Scottish Parliament—such as tax-raising powers like we have never had before—it is sensible to have a distinct Scottish flavour to budgetary, financial and fiscal projections. We have not really had that from the OBR; it does not do that and was not set up for that, as that is not the point of it. This is therefore a reasonable and sensible measure.

In Scotland, we do not have the issues with immigration that some communities in England feel as if they have faced. Our population is not growing as fast as the population of England; it never has, since the Act of Union. Since we do not have powers over immigration—we do not have those levers—it is very difficult for us to grow our population, and thus our tax base, and to change the economic situation in Scotland.

Given that background and the challenges we face, I think it is reasonable for an independent commission to be set up to provide impartial and clear evidence about projections. As has been stated, the OBR often does not get it right; hopefully the Scottish Fiscal Commission will be more on the money, but we will have to wait and see. No doubt there will be evaluation along the way but, in general, I support the order, I am pleased to see it being introduced and I am pleased to see that the Scottish Parliament has taken the lead in setting it up.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Gray. I welcome the order. The important thing about this debate is that it is not about the present Scottish Government or the past Scottish Government and how they have behaved; it is about the Scottish Government as an institution. From now on, an independent commission will be able to scrutinise the Government’s work.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North. There is an issue about how good the scrutiny is when the people doing it are 500, 600, 700 or even 800 miles away from the people on the ground, so it is very good that we are where we are. However, I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South about the time that this has taken. I do not want a debate about why his amendment fell, because I am glad that we have unity here today, but it is quite clear that there were concerns and resistance when the Scottish Fiscal Commission Act was being debated in the Scottish Parliament last year. Will the Minister explain why this has taken so long and why the order will not be enacted for at least another two months? I understand that nothing moves very fast in this place, but did it really have to take this long?

The timeframes for the administrative aspects of enacting these measures are perfectly routine. I do not think that they depart from the normal processes that are necessary for moving through the legislative and administrative procedures for getting these things authorised.

I conclude by commending the order to the Committee. I am delighted that it has the support of all Members from the Opposition parties and from the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.

Draft Immigration (Health Charge) (Amendment) Order 2017

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr David Nuttall

† Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)

† Berry, Jake (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con)

† Cleverly, James (Braintree) (Con)

† Davies, Mims (Eastleigh) (Con)

† Day, Martyn (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP)

† Djanogly, Mr Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)

Farrelly, Paul (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab)

Fysh, Marcus (Yeovil) (Con)

† Goodwill, Mr Robert (Minister for Immigration)

† Griffiths, Andrew (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Harper, Mr Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)

Hodge, Dame Margaret (Barking) (Lab)

† Lefroy, Jeremy (Stafford) (Con)

McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)

† McDonald, Stuart C. (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)

† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)

Smith, Owen (Pontypridd) (Lab)

† Turner, Karl (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)

Sean Bex, Gavin O'Leary, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 31 January 2017

[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]

Draft Immigration (Health Charge) (Amendment) Order 2017

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Health Charge) (Amendment) Order 2017.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. The immigration health charge was introduced in April 2015, and is paid by non-European economic area temporary migrants who apply either for a visa for more than six months or to extend their stay in the UK for a further limited period. The charge, which is set at a competitive level of £200 per annum per person and at a discounted rate of £150 for students and youth mobility scheme applicants, ensures that migrants contribute to the national health service in a manner commensurate with their immigration status, subject to limited exceptions.

Those who pay the charge receive NHS care in the same way as permanent residents do, subject to the same clinical need and waiting times, for as long as their leave remains valid. That means that they pay only those charges that a UK resident would pay, such as for dentistry, and for prescriptions in England.

In its first year of operation, the immigration health charge collected £164 million for spending on the NHS, of which £140.1 million was made available for spending in 2015-16. The remainder, as a result of agreed accounting arrangements, will be made available to the NHS in the 2016-17 supplementary estimates process. The Home Office has transferred, through the main estimates, a further £120 million so far this financial year for spending on the NHS, and is expected to make a further transfer of income to the NHS in the 2016-17 supplementary estimates process. Income from the charge is shared between the NHS in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, using the formula devised by Lord Barnett, and spent as those bodies see fit.

The draft order amends the principal order—the Immigration (Health Charge) Order 2015—in response to the findings of two separate reviews. The first of these was conducted by the independent Migration Advisory Committee, which for brevity I will refer to as the MAC. In 2015, the MAC was commissioned to provide advice on a number of potential changes to tier 2. As part of the review, it was also asked to consider the case for applying the health charge to users of the tier 2 intra-company transfer route, which is the route for employees of multinational employers who are transferred to the UK either to take up a role that cannot be filled by a UK recruit or for training purposes. It is the only route within tier 2 and, indeed, within the entire points-based system, that is exempt from the health charge.

Although partners to the review pointed out that a large proportion of intra-company transferees might be in receipt of private healthcare, the MAC noted that they have access to the NHS, whether they use it or not. Indeed, there might be instances when they need recourse to the NHS, for example for GP referrals or in an emergency. The MAC also noted that contributions to a universal service are not made on the basis of whether an individual makes use of that service and that, for example, UK residents can opt for private healthcare without paying less tax to reflect their lower use of the NHS. The MAC therefore concluded that it could not see a good reason why intra-company transferees should be exempt from payment, and recommended that the group pay the health charge in line with other users of the tier 2 route. The recommendation was accepted by the Government, and the draft order amends the principal order to that effect.

I reassure the Committee that the Government have considered carefully the impact of applying the health charge to intra-company transferees. The increased cost to the group is small, relative to their expected income over the duration of their stay in the UK. Short-term staff, for example, must earn at least £30,000 per year and long-term staff at least £41,500. From April, all staff will be required to be paid the minimum of £41,500; as such, any impact on the route is expected to be negligible.

The second review discharged a commitment that the Government made during the passage of the principal order to review the operation of the health charge six months after implementation. It was an internal review that examined performance between April and October 2015 and considered areas for improvement. Internal and external partners across Government were consulted and contributed to the review. Its outcome was published in a letter to the Home Affairs Committee on 24 January. The review found that, overall, the health charge had been implemented successfully, but it recommended a number of technical changes to the principal order to strengthen its provisions.

First, it is the Government’s position that victims of modern slavery should not pay the health charge. The charge is waived in those cases—where the victim was not trafficked; under the order, victims of trafficking are exempt from the charge. However, the review recommended that, rather than a waiver, an explicit exemption should be set out on the principal order. The draft order amends schedule 2 of the principal order so that all victims of modern slavery, whether trafficked or not, applying for leave under modern slavery policies fall under an explicit exemption. I am personally very pleased to see this explicit exemption, which further underlines this Government’s commitment to combating modern slavery.

Secondly, the draft order amends schedule 2 of the principal order to make it clear that those applying for further leave to remain as a visitor are exempt from the charge. This is a minor clarifying amendment that does not change the status quo. The Government have been quite clear from the outset that applications for visitor visas do not attract the health charge.

Thirdly, article 2 of the draft order amends article 6 of the principal order to ensure that migrants granted temporary leave following a reconsideration of their application or an otherwise successful challenge to a refusal of leave must pay the charge when requested to do so. Article 2 of the draft order also amends article 6 of the principal order to make it clear that those granted an additional period of leave on appeal must also pay a health charge for that additional period. These amendments are in line with the Government’s general policy that temporary migrants should make a proportionate contribution to the NHS through payment of the charge, irrespective of the process by which leave is granted.

Finally, to provide certainty for those migrants whose applications are already in train, article 4 provides for transitional arrangements. The amendments introduced through this draft order will not apply to an immigration application submitted to the Home Office before the order comes into force.

In conclusion, the Government believe that it is only right and fair that migrants, including intra-company transferees, contribute to the extensive, high-quality NHS services available to them during their stay, in line with their temporary immigration status. We estimate that by applying the health charge to this group of migrants, an additional £136 million to £205 million, in 2016-17 prices and at present value, could be raised for the NHS over 10 years.

The other provisions in the draft order are technical but necessary, in so far as they provide greater clarity on the Government’s position or seek to strengthen the wording of the principal order in line with Government policy. I commend the order to the Committee.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the thinking behind this order. The background to this order is widespread public concern about health tourism. I do not think there is anyone in this House who thinks that people who are not entitled to free healthcare should obtain it. Some hospitals need to be more robust about collecting the money that they are due, but we are not in favour in this House of having a scary narrative about health tourism. The Royal College of General Practitioners says that a person is more likely to have an immigrant offering them medical treatment than to be behind an immigrant in the queue to obtain medical treatment. We stand on the principle that people who are not entitled to legal healthcare should not obtain it, but we deprecate some of the coverage of the issue in the tabloid press. It is important to extend healthcare even when there may be a lack of clarity about payment where there are public health issues for the wider population. Health stakeholders have said that we must always be aware of the wider public health concerns.

Opposition Members support the order in principle. We note that it has raised £164 million. We feel that the order makes important clarifications; the Minister spoke about clarity in relation to intra-company transfers. It is important that it is made clear what happens when payment is not made and when applications are not successful. We are pleased to note that if a person applies for further leave to remain or a visa, there will be no health charge. We also welcome the most important amendment that the statutory instrument makes: it makes it clear that there is an exemption for survivors of human trafficking and slavery. That is a very important clarification, and it reinforces this country’s good record on these issues. We also welcome the clarity on transition arrangements.

In closing, I ask what provisions we have planned for EU nationals after Brexit. Will they be subject to this health charge, or will there be another arrangement, based on mutual recognition between us and countries such as France and Spain? Even as we speak, this is a matter of concern to EU nationals living in this country, and to British nationals living in the EU. I would welcome anything the Minister had to say on that. Given those provisos, we are content to support this order.

The Minister and the Committee will be pleased to know that I plan on speaking briefly. Indeed, I had not planned on speaking at all, but was forced to do so by the Shadow Home Secretary’s speech. My understanding—the Minister will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—is that this immigration health charge is not about health tourism at all, if by health tourism we mean visitors who come to the United Kingdom specifically to get healthcare to which they are not entitled. Of course, it is a national health service, not an international health service.

Let me finish the point. This is about making sure that people who come here as migrants to work, or who have other leave, pay a reasonable amount towards services that they get from the health service. It is not about visitors to the United Kingdom who are not entitled to healthcare at all.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for letting me intervene. I am clear what this order is about, but the context of this debate about people paying for healthcare is the very lively tabloid debate there has been about health tourism. That was my point; I was putting the debate in context, not setting out the purpose of the order. If I did not make that clear, I apologise.

I accept that may have been what the hon. Lady was doing, but I was the Minister who took the original primary legislation through the House, and we were very clear about what it was, and was not, about. I do not agree with her. The context was about making sure that those who come to Britain to work and are here perfectly lawfully, contributing to the country, make a relatively modest contribution to the cost of the services that they and their families may get from our national health service.

As for visitors who come to the United Kingdom with the specific intention of getting healthcare to which they are not entitled, we already have provisions on that. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is making sure that the national health service, which, properly, does not charge British citizens and others who are entitled to be here, is better at establishing when people have an entitlement to healthcare, and at collecting money from those who are not entitled to it; that makes our national health service more robust, sustainable and able to provide free care to those who are entitled to it. That is the context in which we introduced the charges; we were making sure that people who are here lawfully make a reasonable contribution to the health service that we have all paid for. The rules for those who are guilty of health tourism and are abusing our national health service are different, and are not brought into play by this health charge at all.

Notwithstanding that, I thought the Minister put the case very well. I particularly welcome the exemption for victims of slavery, and I welcome the work the Government have done on putting in place the Modern Slavery Act 2015, a world-leading piece of legislation to deal with that heinous crime perpetrated by organised criminals. The Minister put the point very well, and I am very happy to support the order.

I, too, can be brief. Scottish National party Members continue to have considerable concerns about the health surcharge established by the coalition Government and, in particular, its effect on NHS workers, students, academics, family members and others who seek to come to the UK. We also object to the fact that health policy has essentially been made by the Minister for Immigration, when it should be a matter for the Scottish Government. We voted against the loss of the exemption for those coming from New Zealand and Australia, and we are disappointed to note that the Scottish Government had not even been consulted on that statutory instrument. At least this amendment order will make explicit an exemption for victims of modern slavery; that is indeed very welcome.

I very much welcome the order. I would like to raise one question with the Minister that arises out of the health surcharge: what if somebody who comes in on a work visa, and has had the surcharge paid, has a condition that changes during their stay here? What if, when they come to re-apply for the visa, their employer wants them to stay—or, if they are self-employed, they want to stay and work—but they have some kind of muscular complaint that worsens and is likely to produce more of a burden on the NHS? It is clear to me that the surcharge is a one-off, and that they would not be refused an extension or a repeat of their visa—on the assumption that they were going to continue to work here—even though their health condition had worsened. I would like assurance on that matter.

I ask because a constituent of mine, who works in another country in the Commonwealth, was refused an extension of their visa, though they were able to continue working in that place. The only grounds on which they were refused was that their health condition had deteriorated. I would not like somebody who is able to work, and wants to continue to work, whether they are self-employed or have an employer who wants them to continue to work, to be refused a renewal of their visa when their health condition worsened because that would place an additional burden on the NHS. We understand that this health surcharge is, as it were, an insurance premium or a kind of contribution made, and that it covers their condition, whatever it is.

I am pleased that we have had a short debate on this matter, and I appreciate the Committee’s general support. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington made some interesting comments about health tourism. No doubt hospitals are encouraged to be more robust in the way that they reclaim costs, but that is not a matter for the Home Office, nor indeed for this Committee; the Department of Health would lead on that. I welcome the support of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, and the rather more grudging support, dare I say it, from the Scottish National party.

The hon. Lady also tempted me to speculate on what these sorts of NHS charges will be, post Brexit. I can only reassure her that the Prime Minister has been clear on the Government’s ambition to get the best deal for Britain in the Brexit negotiations. The Department of Health is supporting the Department for Exiting the European Union in negotiating the best possible outcome for the United Kingdom.

Finally, on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford makes, the tier 2 visas and intra-company transfers are for a limited period. The premium, if you can describe it as that, paid at the beginning covers that period. The question of whether to apply for another visa would up to the company, but with intra-company transfers, it is generally the intention that the person would return to the part of the company in the country from which they came. If my hon. Friend has a specific case that he would like to raise with me, I will certainly look into it to ensure that we are delivering the healthcare that people would expect—not only the healthcare that we are legally obliged to deliver, but that which is within the spirit of the NHS. All applications are considered on their merits and in accordance with the immigration rules. In the context of the health surcharge, the visa should be refused only if the charge was not paid, not on the basis of the applicant’s health. That gives a degree of clarification.

This has been a helpful debate on an important subject, and I hope that I have addressed the key issues raised, building on the excellent work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, who set the ball rolling. The immigration health charge is helping the NHS to remain sustainable for future generations, while the low charge ensures that the UK remains the destination of choice for the brightest and best migrants. On that basis, I commend the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.

Draft Important Public Services (Education) Regulations 2017 Draft Important Public Services (Transport) Regulations 2017

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr Nigel Evans

† Barclay, Stephen (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Davies, Dr James (Vale of Clwyd) (Con)

† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)

† Drummond, Mrs Flick (Portsmouth South) (Con)

† Furniss, Gill (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)

Godsiff, Mr Roger (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

† Gray, Neil (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

† James, Margot (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

† Johnson, Gareth (Dartford) (Con)

† Lammy, Mr David (Tottenham) (Lab)

† McGovern, Alison (Wirral South) (Lab)

† Mathias, Dr Tania (Twickenham) (Con)

† Mills, Nigel (Amber Valley) (Con)

† Morton, Wendy (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con)

† Stephens, Chris (Glasgow South West) (SNP)

† Sunak, Rishi (Richmond (Yorks)) (Con)

Winnick, Mr David (Walsall North) (Lab)

† Zahawi, Nadhim (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

Jonathan Whiffing, Sean Kinsey, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 31 January 2017

[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Draft Important Public Services (Education) Regulations 2017

With this it will be convenient to discuss the draft Important Public Services (Transport) Regulations 2017.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.

The Trade Union Act 2016 modernises the UK’s industrial relations framework to better support an effective and collaborative approach to resolving industrial disputes. The Act restores a level of fairness to our industrial relations regime and gives effect to the Government’s manifesto commitments. It ensures that strikes can happen only as a result of a clear positive decision by those entitled to vote, balancing the interests of unions with the interests of the majority of people who rely on important public services.

The important public services that we are discussing today—education and transport—are devolved competences. What consultation has there been with the Scottish Government?

I will come back to that point, if the hon. Gentleman permits.

The Act received Royal Assent in May 2016. Today we are debating two statutory instruments that implement a 40% threshold for ballot mandate approval for important public services in the education and transport sectors. As well as the requirement that 50% of union members who are eligible to vote do so, 40% of all eligible members will have to agree with the proposed mandate. We propose that the 40% threshold for the two sectors comes into force on 1 March.

The Minister will know that during the passage of the Trade Union Bill, there was some debate on other aspects of balloting, such as electronic balloting. What is the Government’s direction of travel on e-balloting and secure workplace balloting?

I can certainly deal with the issue of e-balloting. The Government committed to undertake a review of the potential for e-balloting in advance of strike action. A review has been established under the chairmanship of Sir Ken Knight and it will report by the end of the year.

We propose that the 40% threshold comes into force on 1 March. At the same time we will bring into force a number of other provisions in the 2016 Act, including a 50% turnout threshold for those who are eligible to vote, as I mentioned; additional information to be provided about the result of any ballot; two weeks’ notice of industrial action to be given to employers; new requirements to manage picketing and new reporting requirements. That ensures that the key changes to the way official industrial action is decided on and implemented are prioritised and come into effect as a package.

The purpose of the ballot thresholds is to rebalance the ability of union members to strike with the interests of the general public, non-striking workers and employers. The 2016 Act takes proportionate action to redress the balance and ensure that unions in the education and transport sectors have a strong democratic mandate before they take strike action. The impact of strike action is most severe when it takes place in the important public services that people and businesses rely on every day, particularly when people are left with no real alternatives. That is particularly unfair when strike action goes ahead with no evidence of strong support from a unionised workforce. That is why we have introduced a 40% approval threshold to apply to important public services such as education and transport, in addition to the requirement for a 50% turnout overall.

For the sake of full disclosure, will the Minister say what her own approval threshold was and what percentage of her own electors voted for her?

As I do not dwell on my own electoral circumstances, I cannot give an absolutely accurate answer to the hon. Lady’s question. However, I do not regard that as a parallel. That sort of question was raised when we debated the Bill last year. Everybody gets a say in the election of an individual MP to represent a constituency. It is not just a vote for one or another candidate; a range of candidates are on offer. Everyone who is going to be affected by the eventual outcome of such an election gets a say. In the cases we are describing, the non-striking workforce and—more important for this argument—the public, who require and depend upon these services, as they do in the hon. Lady’s own constituency, get no say whatsoever.

This is an attempt not to deny strike action or the validity of it, but to rebalance the interests involved. That is why we have introduced a 40% approval threshold to apply to these important public services, in addition to the requirement for a 50% turnout. It is in the interests of the public to know that where they face disruption in these crucial services as a result of strike action, it is because union members have secured a democratic mandate. That is also important for union members who did not support the strike action.

The Government believe that the measures being put in place strike the right balance. During the passage of the Trade Union Bill last year, the Government consulted on which services within the public service categories set out in the Bill should be subject to the 40% threshold and on how the threshold should operate in practice. We analysed more than 200 responses, reviewed the available evidence for the impact of strike action across different public services and listened to stakeholder views.

At this point, I will answer the question from the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts on what consultation took place with the Scottish Government. The Government held a public consultation on these measures during the passage of the Bill, published skeleton regulations as part of the Government response and invited comments from all stakeholders and members of the public, including in Scotland.

A public consultation is very different from one-to-one correspondence with a Minister. Will the Minister elaborate on whether any direct contact was made with the Scottish Government on these matters?

I imagine it was, but as I was not the Minister responsible at the time I cannot confirm that categorically.

As I said, the Government believe that the measures being put place strike the right balance. During the passage of the Trade Union Bill last year, the Government consulted on which services within the public service categories set out in the Bill should be subject to the additional 40% threshold and on how the threshold should operate in practice. The Government response to the consultation was published in January last year, when we also published draft regulations. The substance of those was discussed in Parliament during the passage of the Trade Union Bill. The regulations we are introducing today limit the application of the threshold to those services where there is the most compelling evidence of the impact of strike action and ensure that its scope is proportionate.

What does that mean for the education and transport sectors affected? The Government aim to ensure that all children have the right to an education, so we have focused on teachers who work with pupils of a compulsory school age in state-funded institutions. That reflects the importance of those years for children’s education and the disproportionate impact on learning that strike action can have. In the transport sector, our priority is to ensure that large numbers of people can rely on the services they need every day to make important journeys as far as possible. We have therefore focused on passenger services, because strike action is more likely to have an adverse and immediate impact on people’s ability to go to work, school, college and important appointments. That is why the regulations cover passenger railway services, including the maintenance of trains and the network, and the signalling and control of the operation of the train network. The regulations will also cover any London local bus services, civil air traffic control services and airport and port security services.

Will the Minister explain how the Government came to think that only London bus services counted as important public services? I assume that my constituents who travel on buses into Nottingham or Derby to work would find a strike on those routes inconvenient, too. Is there some reason why the regulations are restricted to London buses?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I will reflect on that and get back to him.

Members of the public will agree that strikes in such important public services should only take place when there is a strong level of support for a justifiable mandate. I hope I have reassured Members that the regulations are justified and proportionate to our objective.

I am aware that concerns have been expressed in Parliament and elsewhere that the 40% threshold is not consistent with our international obligations. I will set out why we are satisfied that it is compliant. We recognise that the threshold introduces additional conditions that must be met before strike action can be taken. It therefore engages our obligations under article 11 of the European convention on human rights and the International Labour Organisation’s conventions. We analysed the provisions of the 2016 Act carefully against those requirements. It is clear that restrictions on article 11 of the ECHR are permitted when they are justified by a legitimate aim and are proportionate. The pressing social needs we want to address in the regulations are the safeguarding of children’s education and the ability of large numbers of people to go to work and carry on their daily lives. Strike action in the important education and transport sectors can have a significant impact on those social needs.

It was my great joy as a child to experience my dad, a railway worker, out on strike on many occasions. Too often, he was protecting health and safety for other railway workers—a cause that is extremely important to all of us who have family members working to keep our trains running. Will the Minister explain how she has weighed important social factors such as the safety of people working in the industry against the causes she mentions?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. The legislation does not purport to condemn all strike action as anathema. It is merely about a requirement to better balance the interests of the travelling public with the rights of people, including her father, to take strike action. There is no concerted effort by the Government to undermine a person’s or a union’s right to take strike action; we are merely requiring that right to be tempered by a strong democratic mandate.

Our aim is to rebalance the ability of union members to strike with the interests of the general public, non-striking workers and employers. In introducing thresholds, we have taken proportionate action that does not ban strikes, but simply redresses the balance by ensuring that unions have a democratic mandate before they take strike action. International bodies have persistently been asked to consider whether UK legislation is compliant, but the UK courts, the European Court of Human Rights and the governing body of the ILO have accepted that UK legislation strikes the right balance between the rights of union members and the legitimate interests of others affected by their actions. That is precisely what the Trade Union Act and the regulations continue to do.

We have taken account of the guidelines on essential services that some of the ILO’s supervisory committees have referred to in respect of services where it may be legitimate to limit or prohibit strike action, but our objective is not the same and that is why we have deliberately used a different term. As I have explained, we want to protect the public from the immediate and adverse consequences of strike action taken with the support of a minority of union members. We are not stopping strikes that have a reasonable democratic level of support, such as those the hon. Lady just mentioned.

Why are the Government seeking to rush ahead with these statutory instruments today, rather than wait until the outcome of the e-balloting review? I say that specifically because of the Government’s assurances to the House of Lords and hon. Members of this place during the passage of the Bill.

The report of the e-balloting review is not far off and the matter is separate from the requirement to secure a proper democratic mandate for strikes in these important public services.

In relation to the regulations, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee pointed out that the Government had committed to issue guidance to clarify which workers will be captured by each of the important public services listed, in order to assist unions and employers when they are assessing how a ballot should be conducted. The Committee’s view was that the need for such guidance raises the question whether the regulations are sufficiently clear and understandable for those affected. Furthermore, the Committee expressed regret that the Government had failed to publish that guidance in early December when laying the draft regulations in Parliament.

I am grateful for the Committee’s scrutiny. I can confirm that the Government have now published guidance to provide advice for unions on applying the 40% threshold in practice, with examples of workers who will be covered by each of the regulations. In drafting the guidance, we engaged with key stakeholders affected by the provisions to understand how the guidance can be most helpful. We listened carefully to their views and have reflected those in the guidance.

In conclusion, the Government believe that the regulations are proportionate and strike the correct balance between the interests of unions and those of members of the public.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.

As the Minister has outlined, the Trade Union Act 2016 introduced a requirement that at least 50% of eligible union members must vote in an industrial action ballot for it to be lawful. In addition, union members in sectors that the Government define as providing important public services will be subject to the requirement that any ballot for industrial action must achieve a 40% threshold of support. Today we consider the transport and education sectors.

The Government have continually sought to argue that their proposals in the Trade Union Act will increase democracy and widen participation, but their neglect of electronic voting and insistence on outmoded processes reveal that as a smokescreen for an ideological attack on working people and trade unions. It is alarming that such an important and controversial component of the Trade Union Act is being determined by secondary legislation, resulting in a more limited opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise and debate provisions that are likely to undermine the right to strike for millions of UK citizens.

Trade unions are a force for good and for equality in our society, particularly in an increasingly insecure world of work. Labour remains fundamentally opposed to additional restrictions on industrial action that will limit the rights of millions of ordinary working people to strike.

Does the hon. Lady agree that if a trade union cannot get 50% of its members out to vote in a ballot, with 40% in support, it cannot really have a very good cause and therefore that the public should not be inconvenienced and workers should not be deprived of the right to work?

It is up to the management negotiating with trade unions to prevent strikes from happening. This legislation will be more acrimonious and will let the hon. Gentleman’s Government off the hook when it comes to strikes.

Given that only postal votes can be used, is it not difficult for trade unions running industrial action ballots by post that the number of post boxes in the UK has reduced sharply in the past five years?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We see with the closure of many post offices how the Government’s policy affects all walks of life.

The Government have also strived to give the appearance of a democratic process in the formulation of the Act and the associated regulations. The consultation on ballot thresholds in important public services received 205 responses from a variety of sources. As I will outline, those responses by no means gave a green light to the Government’s ideas, either on the definition of important public services, or on the restrictions on the ability to carry out proposed strike action.

These regulations must be seen within the wider context. They are part of a slew of regulations that limit trade unions. I thank the Government for listening to reason on the transition period before the rule change for political funds and await their new proposal. I welcome their changes to the initial proposals on the inclusion of ancillary workers in these categories, but make no mistake, the Act is an unnecessary, unjustified and disproportionate restriction on the right to strike for millions of working people.

Strike action in the UK is already at an all-time low. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 2015 had the second lowest annual total of days lost due to strike action since records began in 1891. What is more, the mechanisms already in place in the UK to deter or avoid strike action mean that most disputes are settled without strikes. There are more than four times as many strike ballots than there are actual stoppages. As Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, wrote shortly after the college’s first ever strike since its foundation in 1881,

“women needing urgent and emergency maternity care were getting it because midwives had sat down with management in advance of the day to ensure that a safe service would still be running, staffed by midwives, regardless of the strike.”

Unions are always careful in taking industrial action to offer essential cover and never to put at risk life and limb.

Asking members to take industrial action is always a matter of last resort. The priority for unions is to improve mechanisms for dispute resolution and is evidenced by the TUC initiative in the Southern rail dispute. The Government are pushing an image of trade unions as selfish organisations that threaten public safety, but that could not be further from the truth. Not only are new laws and regulations on strike action unnecessary, but they threaten to aggravate and unsettle the industrial relations we have in this country. The new laws set an unrealistic benchmark for industrial action, undermining the right to strike for many public sector workers. For example, in the sectors covered by the draft regulations, in a ballot where 50% of members take part, unions will need an 80% vote in favour before any strike action can go ahead. This is an unacceptably high threshold.

It is in the interests of workers, employees and the public for disputes to be resolved quickly and amicably. However, the new restrictions will undermine constructive employment relations in the UK, by forcing unions to put more effort into driving up ballot turnout and less into amicable settlements. The British Institute of Human Rights, Liberty and Amnesty International UK said of the then Trade Union Bill, now the Act:

“The government’s plans to significantly restrict trade union rights—set out in the Trade Union Bill—represent a major attack on civil liberties in the UK.”

The right to strike is protected by a number of international and European provisions, including the International Labour Organisation convention 87, the European social charter and the European convention on human rights.

The ILO defines essential services as those the disruption of which would endanger lives. In their response to the Department Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy consultation, Tonia Novitz, Alan Boggs and Ruth Dukes, professors of labour law at the universities of Bristol, Oxford and Glasgow respectively, said:

“Many of the government’s proposed ‘important’ services do not fall under this definition (for instance, education and transport).

We are concerned that the drafters of the Bill have introduced a term, ‘important public services’, which has no precedent under international or British law. This does not accord with the UK’s treaty obligations under the ILO Constitution or Conventions and is inconsistent with the established ILO jurisprudence regarding treatment of ‘essential services’.”

The Government have sought to defend the 40% threshold by citing decisions of the European Court of Human Rights that relate to cases from France and Spain, but those cases deal with the restrictions on the rights of police officers and military personnel. They do not justify restrictions on strike action by public sector transport workers or teachers.

On education, I note that the National Union of Teachers said in its consultation response:

“The ILO Labour Relations (Public Service) Convention 151 also provides that public servants must enjoy the same political and civil rights as other employees. The NUT would argue that any interference with this right must be fully justified and that the Government has failed, as yet, to provide any such justification.”

I have heard nothing from the Minister to convince me that the Government have provided any such justification for why teachers, as public servants, should have their political and civil rights in the form of their ability to organise strike action hampered in this way compared with other workers.

The Government seem to ignore the fact that strike action by teachers often carries significant sympathies from parents, who recognise that adequate conditions for teachers and a good teaching environment are in the interests of their children. It should not escape anyone’s notice that fee-paying schools are exempt from the regulations, as they are not public services. The regulations will ensure that public sector school workers have less capacity to strike than those working in schools that charge fees. The right to strike is a fundamental human right that should be applied equally to all workers.

In the consultation responses on education, 47% of respondents disagreed with the proposed list of bodies and workers. Although that contained a mixture of views, only 17% were in agreement. Some respondents felt that strike action in education services poses no significant risk to the public. Evidently, the Government disagree, but unless they can put forward a coherent case, we should go no further with the regulations.

As for transport services, out of 119 responses, 23% agreed and 38% disagreed with the proposed list, with respondents feeling that strike action in transport services was unlikely to pose risks to the public. The Prime Minister talks of the Tories as the party of the working class, yet in a country where trade unions are already heavily regulated, she wants further restrictions to rob workers of their right to take industrial action, leaving workers badly treated and essentially powerless. For all the reasons given, I cannot support the regulations and will press them to a Division.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group and a proud member of the Glasgow City branch of Unison.

I have led for the Scottish National party on all stages of the Trade Union Act. I see some familiar faces on the Government Benches who have been with me through that long process. They will know that there remains strong opposition from my party to the passage of the Act and these statutory instruments.

It is somewhat ironic that, at this moment, Members in the main Chamber are discussing the outcome of a referendum that would not have met the 40% threshold that the Government wish to impose on the trade union movement. The outcome was based on 37.4%. Under the rules that the Government wish to place on the trade unions, the UK would not be leaving the European Union if the 40% threshold the Government wish to impose on the trade union movement were applied.

Members in the main Chamber will, I am sure, discuss workers’ rights and the rights of the trade union movement as part of the process of leaving the European Union. Those who are suspicious about the Government’s commitment to maintain workers’ rights need only come here, to this Committee, to find out what really is going on and what the Government’s true motivations are.

My real concern is this. Throughout the passage of the Trade Union Act and during the ping-pong exercise, the former Minister for Skills, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—as I said last week, I hope that he is recovering well—gave the House an assurance that he was taking seriously the implementation of e-voting and e-balloting for trade unions. If that review is to take place by the end of this year, it surely makes sense for these statutory instruments to be placed before the House then, once we know the outcome of that exercise, because the Act will only allow postal balloting for industrial action.

The Minister suggested that it is a modernising Act, but it is not—far from it. These Orwellian phrases we have heard so often during the passage of the Act need to stop, because members of the public and trade union members across the UK see right through it.

The response regarding what discussions have taken place with the devolved Administrations is rather unconvincing. The Minister was asked quite clearly what ministerial-to-ministerial meetings have taken place since the passage of the Act and before these statutory instruments were placed before us. It would appear that there have not been any from the Government. We need an answer to that question, because the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament are rightly opposed to the Act and are opposed to any attempt to gerrymander ballots with a 40% rule.

We in Scotland have bitter experience about 40% rules being passed into Scotland, when the Scottish Parliament was delayed by 20 years thanks to the imposition of a 40% rule in the Scottish referendum in 1979. I am fast coming to the conclusion that, just like last week, the Government are doing things in their own order, and I suspect that the Government will have to go away and think again about the application of these regulations.

The trade union movement already meets onerous legal conditions for industrial action. Indeed, the only reason the Act was passed in the first place is that the former Mayor of London, now the Foreign Secretary, had a unique approach to industrial relations in this country. Indeed, the industrial actions that are often referred to in support of the Act met every threshold the Government wish to place upon them.

Additionally, no equality impact assessment has been carried out for the regulations. I will tell the Committee who they will harm: the majority of trade union members who are often low-paid women who have had to undertake industrial action to secure equal pay, for example, and better terms and conditions.

As the shadow Minister has outlined, real concerns have been expressed by the ILO committee of experts, which is very concerned that primary and secondary education have been added to the Act, and we now see that further education has been added as well. I look forward to the Minister’s response, but my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts and I will oppose the regulations today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Evans. I intervened before to ask the Minister, for the purposes of the Committee’s information, if she could tell us what the genuine level of support for her candidature in her constituency at the last general election was. I am sure she will be thrilled to know it was a big 30%. The hon. Member for Dartford, who intervened before, did slightly better, reaching the dizzy heights of 34%. I imagine the Committee has now had its appetite whetted, to know what my own level of support in Wirral South was.

The people of Wirral South are extraordinarily fair-minded, passionate about social justice and get up every morning thinking, “I really hope my MP is speaking out on behalf of the myriad issues we care about,” but only 35% of them committed their vote to support me. None of us on the Committee can claim the true, justified mandate that the Minister seems to think is legitimate to require of public service unions. That is a ridiculous position for us to get into. It is a strange situation for us as democrats, as we no doubt all are in this House, to find ourselves casting forth our judgment on the levels of support that organisations must command for their positions, when we have found ourselves incapable and not up to the task of meeting this test ourselves. We have found it too hard.

There is a lot of discussion about hypocrisy in politics at the moment. I would never dream of accusing anybody here of being guilty of such a thing. At least, we must worry about the appearance of hypocrisy when we are unable to command the levels of support that we would ask of railway workers, tube workers, nurses, teachers and other public servants. They will understand the change that the Government are bringing in and fail to see how we could vote for it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said, the idea, which has absolutely no precedent in our democracy, is that such a threshold should be applied with a justification of protecting important public services. The Government seem to have plucked that definition out of thin air. The regulations would apply such a test in a way that has never been done before. I never thought that I would have to lecture the Tory party in government about the importance of tradition and precedents in our constitution, yet here we are: strange things are indeed happening in this Committee today, are they not?

There is no democratic precedent for this manoeuvre; the Government are completely making it up as they go along. The Minister did give a justification: she said we need to rebalance the interests. I look at the economy in our country today and think that if a rebalancing of interests is needed, it is a rebalancing towards working people, not away from them. The reality is that wages have not grown over the past decade. Since just before the economic crash, people have been doing steadily worse and their wages have continued not to grow.

It is a simple truth in our economy that there are only two things that successfully raise wages: one of them is the law and the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 introduced by my party, and the other is a trade union membership card in the back pocket. Those are the things that raise wages in this country—that is what all the evidence says.

Is that not the real game here? The Government have been caught out. They think the best way to stop teachers deciding to take national industrial action on pay is by imposing the 40% rule.

That is a very good point. The hon. Gentleman reminds me that, as he did, I should draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have been proud to be supported by trade unions. Like all good Labour MPs, I work week in, week out, with our friends in the trade union movement. That is how I know that if what the Minister wanted to do was modernise the trade unions, she would be correct. It is very important that we see these institutions not as relics of the past, but as an important force for good in the future, which is why she should push ahead with the use of new technologies for the trade union movement. She should know that only too well, given that her party used online balloting to find its candidate for the London mayoral election—although that may be why she is not so keen on it; that story did not end well.

Online balloting is used for many democratic functions by, for example, building societies or important national organisations. I vote in online ballots at least three or four times a year for the different representative functions in the co-operative organisations that I am a member of. It is a common thing that could easily be done and it would save trade unions a heck of a lot of money that could be spent fighting for equality, safety and decent pay and terms and conditions in the workplace.

I finish with two points. First, I point out to the Minister that the year with the highest number of strike days our country has faced since 1996—as I am sure everybody in the Committee knows—was 2011. Why? Because we saw an attack on public services at the commencement of the austerity policies of the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne). We saw an attack on people’s pension rights and on funding for the public sector, and people did not feel that that could stand. The strikes were a reaction to that, marking the height of anguish about what was happening in our country. The cause of a strike is people not getting around the table to discuss things properly and find a moderate way forward. The cause of a strike is parties not talking to each other and not working together.

Secondly, and following on from that, if we pass these measures and still see in an increase in strike days because of the Government’s approach to public services, what will the Minister do then? Will we see even more attempts to reduce the influence of trade unions in our society and to restrict their abilities, or will she accept—as I believe she has to—that working people in this country need effective, well informed trade unions that have the ability to work in the modern era and give working people a genuine shot at a good future

I do not intend to respond to all of the points raised—they were given an adequate hearing during the passage of the 2016 Act—but I will respond to the particularly germane points.

First of all, I must respond to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Wirral South. She talked about the strikes in 2011 as if they were somehow justified as an attack on the former Chancellor’s rescue of the British economy. The coalition Government came in with a mandate from the 2010 general election to restore the public finances from the shambles the Opposition left them in.

On a point of order, Mr Evans. For the record, I was on strike in 2011 to protect my occupational pension, which was being attacked by the Government.

I contend that the Government’s position on the legislation is not ideological at all. I agree with Opposition Members that trade unions are a force for good. Contrary to some of the remarks we have heard, we are seeking a rebalance in the interests of the public, most of whom are workers as well. In the egregious current example of the Southern rail strike, many of the passengers attempting to get to work or to important appointments are paid considerably less than the union members who are on strike. I ask Opposition Members to consider that. That is an important part of why we are trying to rebalance the interests of unions with those of the rest of the population, who require and indeed depend on public services. Nothing in the Act undermines the right to strike. It merely ensures that, when strikes occur in vital public services—I accept that they are usually the last resort—they have a strong democratic mandate. That is all that is being proposed.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough talked about public opinion during the consultation. The consultation process was in depth. The response to a ComRes poll of 1,000 people held in 2015 found that 62% supported the ballot thresholds. This support was consistent across England, Scotland and Wales. The measure was, of course, a manifesto commitment made by the Government before they came into office.

The hon. Lady also talked about our international obligations and claimed that ECHR cases indicated that the thresholds we are proposing should only apply to police officers and workers in other sectors that involve life and death. That is not the case. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers case, which was heard by the European Court of Human Rights, specifically made it clear that Governments have a wide margin in deciding what proportionate measures are. We have taken great care to show that our proposals are consistent with our international obligations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley made the very good point about bus services outside London. Buses in London are tightly regulated by Transport for London and the impact on the public of strikes in bus services in the past is well documented. More than 6.5 million journeys would be disrupted by 24-hour strike action across the London-wide bus network. In contrast, there is limited evidence of the impact of strike action in local bus services outside London on the sorts of users who rely on those services. If my hon. Friend has evidence to the contrary, I invite him to bring it to my attention and we will look at it.

Positive industrial relations are the backbone of a productive economy and the Government believe that trade unions can play a constructive role in maintaining such relations. We are equally clear that the reforms are required to ensure that strikes happen only as a result of a clear, positive decision by at least 50% of those union members entitled to vote. That is why we brought in the Trade Union Act, in order to fulfil one of our manifesto commitments. The regulations implement the Act’s provisions in relation to the 40% threshold for approval for strike action in important public services in the education and transport sectors. I have explained the purpose and we have debated it well this afternoon. We are taking proportionate action, which redresses the balance by ensuring unions in these sectors have a strong, clear and recent democratic mandate before they take strike action. I believe the proposals are fair and appropriate and I commend the regulations to the Committee.

I have heard what the Minister has to say. The first thing I would say is that in the industrial actions that have been referred to, the thresholds would have been met, so I do not understand why they have been cited.

There is a very real issue regarding the impact the measures will have on the devolved Administrations, particularly in Scotland. The UK Government have determined that employment law is entirely reserved. I am totally dissatisfied that no explanation has been given as to what discussions have taken place with the Scottish Government. That is a very real issue, where tensions can easily arise. Finally, it would be useful if the Minister told us what penalties would be applied to any local authority or devolved Administration that ignored the thresholds and allowed industrial action to take place.

Question put.


That the Committee has considered the draft Important Public Services (Education) Regulations 2017.

Draft Important Public Services (Transport) Regulations 2017

Motion made, and Question put,

That the Committee has considered the draft Important Public Services (Transport) Regulations 2017.—(Margot James.)

Committee rose.