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Trade Unions: Ballots

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 31 March 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to remove the threshold of 40 per cent of the electorate having to vote “yes” in ballots on trade union recognition in order to secure a positive result in addition to a simple majority.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to change the statutory procedure for the recognition of trade unions.

I thank the noble Lord for confirming this double standard. There is a high hurdle—a double hurdle, in fact—for trade unions to jump, but in the Government’s proposals for a radical change to the constitution there is no such double hurdle at all, simply a vote of 17 per cent to 13 per cent or whatever. I have two questions for the Minister. First, given that on 16 February the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, opposed the Rooker amendment on the ground that it would be a deterrent to people turning out because they might not know whether their votes would count, are workers not deterred as well? Secondly, if on 5 May the turnout is 37 per cent, will the Government repeat Mr Clegg’s comment on the Barnsley by-election that 37 per cent was “an abysmally low turnout”, or—surprise, surprise—will they say, “That was astonishingly high”, and that 25 per cent or something like that is a perfectly good basis on which to change our constitution?

My Lords, the two cases are completely different and there is no reason why the balloting arrangements should be the same. The voting constituencies in union recognition ballots, averaging a few hundred, are tiny compared to those of referendums. The workforce concerned is often co-located and can be easily accessed. It is therefore much easier in this case to ensure a large turnout, provided that the workers are genuinely interested in union recognition.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will find it ironic that the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, should at the same time be advocating the removal of the threshold in trade union recognition ballots and the introduction of a threshold in the AV referendum. I find that absolutely extraordinary and no doubt the Minister does as well.

My Lords, I do not think that the Minister has even understood the Question that has been put to him, but consistency and rationality are not exactly hallmarks of the present Government. Does he recall that the threshold amendment that we are talking about was passed in your Lordships’ House on the basis of a full argument? Why is there a different set of criteria here, given that your Lordships voted for a threshold in the first place?

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. I suggest that we have had a fair amount of debate on the subject over recent months and I suspect that more may be occasioned in the future. There is little precedent for thresholds being applied to referendums in the United Kingdom. There was no threshold in the referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1997, the Belfast agreement or the Greater London Authority in 1998, or in the north-east referendum in 2004. Also, no threshold is specified for mayoral referendums under the Local Government Act, despite very low turnouts having been seen in practice in some cases.

My Lords, the Question was fundamentally about whether the Government are adopting a consistent position in respect of determining the validity of a decision. Can the Minister simply explain why, when we are changing the constitution of the country, presumably for a very long time, the Government feel that there is no necessity even for the level of a threshold that is required for the recognition of a single trade union? It seems to most people to be a totally contradictory position.

My Lords, let me say, if I may be so bold, that that was not what the Question was about. The Question was about union recognition ballots. The Government’s position on that is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, is the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, not slightly misinformed? We are not voting for a change in the constitution on 5 May. We are voting as to whether we should have such a change.

My Lords, this is a complex issue that is probably worthy of a lengthier debate; in seven minutes, even without hesitation, deviation and repetition, we are going to give it only a cursory examination. I trust that the Minister will agree that the seminar at No. 10 this week on encouraging employee engagement, an approach started by the previous Government, is a path worth pursuing. Will he also agree that, during the recent recession, trade unions with enlightened employers agreed to things such as a shorter working week, temporary lay-offs and delayed pay increases to save jobs, using this period also to engage in additional training? Surely the Minister will agree that encouraging constructive dialogue between trade unions and enlightened employers is a much better way forward than trying to restrict trade union recognition.

My Lords, I cannot find anything in what the noble Lord said with which to disagree. I will leave it at that.