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Trade Unions: Skilled Professional Graduate Workers

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to support the lives and prospects of skilled professional graduate workers who are members of a trade union.

My Lords, I apologise for the slight delay. We have a technical issue with the clocks which we had hoped would be resolved by the start of this debate, but I am told that that has not happened. We are relying on smoke signals and messages on the officials chat. I call the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.

My Lords, it is unusual to begin a speech by congratulating someone on a speech they have not given, but I would like to be the first person to congratulate my noble friend Lady Swinburne on the maiden speech that we are going to hear and commiserate with her that it has to be in reply to a debate rather than her having 10 minutes all on her own.

Secondly, I remind the Committee that I am president of BALPA. I know I do it often, but I am told that I often ought to do it, so I remind noble Lords of that. I thank BALPA. I also thank Prospect, which did a special brief for me for this debate; the House of Lords Library, which supplemented its already extensive brief; and other organisations including UNISON, the BMA, the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association and the British Dietetic Association, which I was president of at one time, and sundry others.

We have just had Question Time. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, spoke about the eternal policy of making the poor more comfortable. This is not about that. It is about the forgotten class of Britain, as I think of them: the 3.9 million of the 6.3 million members of trade unions affiliated to the TUC who are graduates earning well. In the minds of many, particularly in the Conservative Party, the average TUC worker works down the pit or in some awful occupation. That is not true today. The majority are graduates and are a highly intelligent, very influential bunch, of whom almost 2 million vote for the Conservative Party. Therefore, they deserve to be represented on this side of the Room.

In recent times, they have moved from where Theresa May put them—“just about managing”—into just not managing, because we forget this terribly important group of people who are the backbone of the country. They provide skills. They go to work every day and want a better life for their families. They work extremely hard and get very little. Teachers, civil servants, air traffic controllers and people in the heritage sector, as Prospect calls them, who work to keep our museums and our country’s heritage together, are middle and upper income earners, but not rich income earners.

For instance, a recent Prospect survey showed that 28% of its members were receiving some sort of support from their wider family to keep going, particularly if they have children. Some 13% of them had rising credit card debts because their situation is so difficult. Today, of course, virtually every family in the middle-income group is faced with a rising mortgage bill, not by £10 or £20 but often £100 or more a week. I speak from experience—my daughter and son are both on the receiving end of this, and the bank of grandpa, which can always be more generous, is sometimes called into use.

Let us look at a family of two children with a parent who earns £60,000 a year. People say, “Oh, that’s a lot of money—aren’t they rich?” and so on. It is not a lot of money. When they got to £50,000, they started losing their child benefit. They came into the higher tax rate at £50,270, and from then on, their tax rate was 42%—40% tax, 2% NI. By the time they got to £60,000, they had lost all their child benefit, at a marginal tax rate of 61%, higher than anything that is paid for even by those in the top tax bracket. Therefore, £10,000 more income from working hard to get from £50,000 to £60,000 yielded that family £3,900—they got to take home 39% of their money.

People talk about 10% pay increases. In fact, it is a 5.8% pay increase when you take off just the tax, so it is not a huge increase. In addition—I direct this to my noble friend—the Government have pledged to freeze tax rates until 2028, for five more years. Last year, half a million people became higher-rate taxpayers. At this rate, another 2 million to 3 million will be higher-rate taxpayers by 2028, all of them worse off. If I was the policy director of the Labour Party, I would be saying, “This is an excellent policy. We must really get the Government to stick to it because it is the one way of them losing the election, as people will get so fed up with high tax and no remission”.

We are going to have an election in 2024. At the moment, the Government are going to go into that election saying, “Your tax is going to be frozen for four more years while your income, hopefully, might go up a bit”. If my noble friend wants a recipe for losing an election, she very much has it here, and if she wants to change that, she had better change it around a bit—I am sorry; I am trying to keep an eye on my automatic timer.

I get an email virtually every day of the week from the people whose priorities are our priorities—that is the Government’s slogan. They want to halve inflation—fine; that would be nice. They want to grow the economy; there is not much sign of that happening. They want to reduce debt. That sounds good, but why? There is nothing sacred about debt. We are not as indebted as many European countries and we do not have to make all the working people pay for reducing the debt. We could quite easily reduce it at a much slower rate, and I suggest that we should.

We want to cut waiting lists, but maybe we should look at what is on them. Perhaps we are trying to do a bit too much. If there are really umpteen hundred thousand people waiting for hospital appointments, maybe we are trying to do too many. The NHS has never had more money than at present or more crises than it appears to have at present. The one thing that is popular is stopping the boats. Most people do not object to immigration, but they do object to unfairness; they see crossing the channel as unfair. It would be nice to think that government policy will stop the boats, although I have grave doubts about whether it will make any difference at all.

I always like to finish by quoting someone other than myself. GK Chesterton comes to mind:

“Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;

For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet”.

These people will speak next year. Unless the Government pull their socks up and get some decent policies into play, they will not like the message.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for tabling this debate and for his thought-provoking introduction. I also add my advance congratulations, or commiserations—I am not sure which—to the noble Baroness, Lady Swinburne, on her maiden speech.

This is an opportunity to shine a light on the aspirations of skilled and professional workers, who, according to the latest census, now make up the single biggest occupational group in the UK. Surveys show that professional workers want more hybrid and team working and upgrades in technology so that their skills can keep pace, but also the right to switch off and a more humane work/life balance. The threats of casualisation, management by algorithm, e-surveillance and burnout no longer discriminate between what used to be called white collar and blue collar.

Graduate workers feel money pressures too, as we have heard. Student loans are repayable at the higher RPI rate of inflation, not CPI, as junior doctors highlighted when calling for restoration of their pay. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, will know of airline cadet pilots on bogus self-employment contracts, taking out company loans of tens of thousands of pounds to pay training fees. One cadet I met had always dreamed of becoming a pilot but had no bank of mum or dad to draw on; he slept in his car to save money.

Many young people from working-class backgrounds with ambitions to join a profession, especially young black people, can face tough barriers to entry. Industries such as fashion and journalism have become gentrified. Too often, an unpaid internship is the ticket in, but few can afford to work for free. Five years ago, the Government announced a crackdown on this form of exploitation. I hope they will tell us how many employers who flout the minimum wage law on unpaid internships have been prosecuted since then.

More positively, I have an example of what can be achieved through unionisation. The broadcasting union BECTU, now part of Prospect, has done ground-breaking work to tackle “old school tie” recruitment practices. The union organised events for hundreds of young black and ethnic-minority creatives from ordinary backgrounds, giving them the chance to pitch ideas directly to top TV programme commissioners. Could Ministers acknowledge that, for a worker, one of the best ways to succeed at work is to join a trade union?

In a changing world, continuous professional development is ever more important. One of the TUC’s proudest achievements was the launch of our Unionlearn organisation. At its peak, it provided training opportunities for 250,000 people every year. Workers from all walks of life, especially apprentices and young professionals, benefited enormously. Women returners gained confidence not just to get back into work but to go for promotion. Despite appeals from a host of employers and unions and independent evaluation showing that Unionlearn was top of the class on value for money, student retention and results, the then Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, axed the £12 million grant. A wise Government would reinstate that support.

Here is something else the Government could do. Political parties have long used independently run online votes, as have businesses and a range of other organisations, but, uniquely, by law, unions are prevented from doing so for statutory ballots. In the 21st century, tech-savvy professionals and, indeed, union members in general, think that this is complete nonsense. What is worse is that this ban on safe and secure e-ballots risks degrading union democracy. Any true democrat should support ways to boost turnout and maximise membership participation.

Finally, skilled workers and professionals are rightly proud of their work, and they want to feel valued by their boss and wider society. In Germany, for example, the status of engineers is widely celebrated; in the UK, sadly, not so much. What about valuing our public service professionals—health staff, teachers, train drivers, firefighters and civil servants? Are Ministers setting a good example in how they talk to and treat these trade unionists? After years of understaffing and real-pay cuts, we are witnessing something of a professional worker rebellion, but the Government’s response is, “Obey work orders to strike-break, or face the sack”.

Playing politics with liberties and livelihoods is no way to run a country. Workers are not just commodities; they are human beings. They have knowledge and skills that can help rebuild Britain but, in return, they expect to be treated with respect. They also expect their trade unions to be treated with respect.

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for his work to promote the role of trade unions and their members in the rather desolate area of the Conservative Party, which is not necessarily receptive to his ardent cultivation of this cause. I have known him for many years and was his predecessor as president of BALPA. My predecessor was Stanley Clinton-Davis, who was also a Member of this House. It is with pleasure that I take part in this debate. I add my warm welcome to the Minister and I wish her well for her speech.

I will concentrate on BALPA for a moment because it is an admirable union and professional association. It is not the only one; there are others, and they should be recognised as such, as has just been said. BALPA enhances its profession and is embedded in the aviation industry. It is very active and skilled on health and safety, and very well regarded throughout its industry. It is militant when it has to be. A couple of years ago at a BALPA reception, I was quite amused to hear Lord Tebbit tell us that we should be more militant in BALPA on the issue of drones near airports. He said, “I wouldn’t put up with it”. I think we took his advice and got a result.

One feature of the work of BALPA is that it aims to stop employers, whether airlines or manufacturers of aircraft, from acting expeditiously and taking shortcuts. At the same time, it makes sure that pilots do not automatically get the blame when there is a crash. There has been a tendency for airlines and manufacturers, in the event of an accident, to try first to pin it on the pilots. That is unfair and wrong, but a feature that an expert union can help to prevent.

BALPA is not an outlier in the trade union movement and is not different from the unions that you read a lot about in the newspapers. It is not an elite; it is part of the diverse family of trade unions in this country, including small, specialist unions. I have a particularly fond memory of the Sheffield Wool Shear Workers Union, which had 12 members. I visited them in Sheffield once. Unions across the world are also very diverse.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is keen to point out that Labour does not command the automatic loyalty of trade union members. In fact, I think that this country is blessed by not having a political trade union movement. In many continental countries, your membership of a particular trade union is determined by your political views. We do not do that; politics are secondary to industrial and occupational interests.

This country used to have what was called an aristocracy of labour, with craftsmen—and it was always men—and often manual workers keen on demarcation and keeping other people away. I have never liked that model of trade unionism. I have never wanted to see the British class system alive and well in this or any other part of our country; I have wanted to see a more egalitarian and open approach to problems. Now, as has been pointed out, many trade union members are graduates, rather than joining through traditional ways. I am always suspicious that some people might try to develop new hierarchies, which would not be in the interests of the country or of workers. I hold to the view that the emphasis should be on teamworking, common action and a joint approach to problems. A pilot, after all, needs skilled maintenance, traffic controllers and the rest to help.

Other than the quest for skills, recognition is important. It is important to recognise that this group is not an elite but is struggling like many others, as has been pointed out. I remind your Lordships, as we talk about those who we regard as middle class, what it looks like for the people on £20,000 a year, never mind £50,000.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on securing this debate and on his eloquent opening speech, and the noble Baroness, Lady Swinburne, on her much-anticipated maiden speech. I will speak about something that is of concern both to skilled professional graduate workers and to all workers—collective bargaining.

I start with the definition of a trade union from page 1 of Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s seminal History of Trade Unionism in 1894:

“a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives”.

A union is an institution in which a combination of workers seeks to redress the inevitable imbalance of power in setting the terms and conditions of engagement at the workplace between the worker on the one hand and the employer on the other. Statute recognises this by defining a trade union by reference to its principal purposes, which must include

“the regulation of relations between workers and employers”.

This objective is achieved by the process of collective bargaining, which, to be effective, must include a real threat of taking industrial action. Without that threat, collective bargaining is reduced merely to collective begging.

Seeking to set terms and conditions in combination is, of course, the antithesis of competition. Hence unions have been protected in UK law since 1971 and in EU law since 1999 to permit collective bargaining in the face of competition law. The right to bargain collectively is recognised in international law ratified by the United Kingdom: ILO Convention 98 stands out prominently, as does Article 6 of the European Social Charter. Both are fortified by the obligations that the UK undertook in 2021 in the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU. The European convention also recognises the right to bargain collectively as an essential element of it—that was the case of Demir and Baykara v Turkey.

The Canadian Supreme Court usefully reiterated the purpose of collective bargaining in the Mounted Police case in 2015, which derived the right to bargain collectively from the guarantee of freedom of association in Section 2(d) of the Canadian charter of rights. The chief justice speaking for the majority held that

“we conclude that s. 2(d) guarantees the right of employees to meaningfully associate in the pursuit of collective workplace goals … This guarantee includes a right to collective bargaining … s. 2(d) functions to prevent individuals, who alone may be powerless, from being overwhelmed by more powerful entities, while also enhancing their strength through the exercise of collective power. Nowhere are these dual functions of s. 2(d) more pertinent than in labour relations. Individual employees typically lack the power to bargain and pursue workplace goals with their more powerful employers. Only by banding together in collective bargaining associations, thus strengthening their bargaining power with their employer, can they meaningfully pursue their workplace goals”.

In the United Kingdom, from the end of the 19th century until the 1980s, it was the policy of successive, indeed all, UK Governments to promote collective bargaining, starting perhaps with the Conciliation Act 1896 and Trade Boards Act 1909—those bodies becoming the wages councils—and progressively extending after the First World War.

In parallel to those statutory developments, voluntary collective bargaining was stimulated by government policy following the First World War, with the reports of JH Whitley as part of the post-war reconstruction setting up joint industrial councils, or simply “Whitley councils”, on a sector-wide basis. Those councils had extensive reach in many industries, particularly in the public sector. There were other mechanisms, too: the Fair Wages Resolutions of the House of Commons, the extension of collective agreements to non-parties and obligations placed on nationalised industries to bargain collectively in the Acts establishing them.

By 1975, some 85% of the UK workforce had one or more terms and conditions set by collective agreement. By reason of government policy since then, collective bargaining coverage has been reduced to less than 25% of the UK’s 30 million workers. This is practically the lowest level in Europe. In the EU, it is now law that states with coverage of less than 80% must formulate an action plan to remedy that situation.

I stress that this is not a matter of individual repudiation in the UK of trade unions or collective bargaining, since surveys show overwhelming support among working people for trade union representation. The disastrous decline in collective bargaining coverage has instead been brought about by government policy; restrictive legislation on the ability of trade unions to take industrial action; campaigns for derecognition; abolition of the wages councils; repeal of the extension mechanism for collective agreements; ending the fair wages resolutions; outsourcing; privatisation; and so on.

The consequences have been the degradation of terms and conditions of work, precarity, stress and damage to mental health among workers, and, of course, damage to levels of pay. The average value of wages is lower now than in 2007, and there are more people claiming benefits in work than there are out of work. The current wave of strikes is a reaction to the fall in the value of wages. Poverty among working people is now endemic.

The collapse of collective bargaining is bad not just for working-class people—including professionals—but for business too, since wages are spent on consumption, which increases demand in the economy. Will the Minister undertake to enter into formal dialogue with unions and employers with a view to extending collective bargaining coverage in the future?

My Lords, my first task is of course to thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for bringing this subject to us. My second task is an odd one: to congratulate in advance the noble Baroness, Lady Swinburne, on her maiden speech. Of all the ways to make a maiden speech, this is probably the most awkward—so may the wind get under the noble Baroness’s wings on this one. Having had a brief look at her CV and her experience, and indeed the number of letters after her name—I think there are nine, if I counted correctly—she is probably an appropriate person to comment on this debate.

We are now encouraging more and more people to go to university, so we should not be surprised at the huge rise in the number of graduates in the workforce. Anybody my age or older may be surprised at the fact that trade unions are now full of graduates, and one of the most unionised bits of our world is the graduate bases. Nursing is now a graduate profession, as is teaching. These big public service unions tend to be the ones best represented, as are the unions in the big employers. Increasingly, the average member of a union is a person with qualifications at level 6 or just below.

This debate sits clearly between a couple of bits of legislation. One is the strikes Bill, which has been mentioned, or at least alluded to, quite frequently today. To put it bluntly, if the Government are taking away such a fundamental right, I hope that they let us know what we are getting in return, if we agree that in certain cases it is appropriate to take it away. I do not think I have heard that argument fully put forward so far. The one example that comes up is the police. If the Government were to improve pensions and retirement provisions, they might have a case. I have not caught any sniff of that from them. What are they going to do to make sure that people get some sort of compensation for this? What is in it for the worker? These people are highly skilled graduates who have invested deeply in their own training; let us not forget that. They are engaging with the system—they have been told to do that—and they are coming back.

There is the Lifelong Learning Bill, which I do not think anyone has alluded to in this debate, in which we are looking at expanding the way we train and extending the training structures slightly further throughout the system. We should remember that when we are talking about this issue. We have a lot of graduates, but they have to de-skill slightly to get employed in certain occupations. Maybe trade unions will help them. Trade unions would be an excellent vehicle for making sure that people know when to get extra qualifications and change or update their skills. They are perfectly placed; it is part of the job they should be doing. However, if you have an antagonistic relationship with the unions, among other things, the chances of getting this done properly are lowered and there will be more barriers.

A trade union, as has been said, has potential advantages, and we have already heard about collective bargaining. There is less bureaucracy, quicker decisions and people know what they are entitled to. All of this is in the potential of a trade union. None of the trade unions and associations really inspires the idea of “red in tooth and claw” socialism marching down the street—barristers have had a go, for God’s sake, as have doctors. Their whole nature is changing. The days of the mass meeting with hands going in the air are long past.

I hope the Government will give us some idea of how they will involve themselves in the continued professional development of these groups, which have complicated training structures, want to do more and will need to upgrade their skills. The trade unions and trade associations are a vehicle by which this can be done, and there will be some engagement. I hope that the Minister, in replying to this debate, recognises that the Government are responding to a new employment reality and has some idea of what that constitutes.

We are talking about a complete change in the way the workforce is organised. The government sector will probably have the most contact with the union body for the foreseeable future. But we all know that the one way to make a totally wrong prediction about the future is to imagine it as a tarted-up version of the present. We do not know what is coming. The gig economy was supposed to remove all need for trade unions, but it is clear that in certain large sectors, it has not. We are not going to have a gig economy National Health Service any time soon—or at least, I hope not. How are we going to get this interaction? How will we establish good relationships?

I will not mention factors such as pay, as I suspect that any member of a political party who did so would be going the right way about getting themselves shot. However, we have had austerity for many years—my own party was part of this—and it is continuing. There is going to come a point where people rebel. I hope the Government have some idea not only about negotiation, but when they think the hand of government pay restriction will be lifted. Some predict that life is going to get a bit better; that might be an interesting thing to take out of this. I look forward to the maiden speech from the noble Baroness; I only wish that it was in a more conventional circumstance, so that we could give her the praise it probably deserves.

My Lords, I too welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Swinburne, to her place and congratulate her in advance of her maiden speech. She is very welcome in this House, and I am sure we all look forward to working with her in the months and years to come. It is great to see her here this afternoon.

It has been a very interesting and welcome, as well as slightly unusual, debate. When I saw the title, I admit to not being sure quite where the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, was going to take us this afternoon. But it has been a really good opportunity to talk about the changing nature of trade unionism, as well as the Government’s attempts to thwart it, and the changing nature of work. It is a shame that we have had only one hour in which to do so, but it has been a very well-informed discussion led by leading trade unionists; I am not going to say “former” because they are all still leaders in what they do, and they bring a wealth of experience to our discussions.

We know that middle-income earners and those in permanent jobs and larger workplaces are more likely to be members of trade unions. My noble friend Lord Monks warned us against any notion of a hierarchy of workers and spoke about the benefits of the British system of trade unionism. He is right to remind us that trade unions are a vital part of the fabric of our democracy. This was put further into context by my noble friend Lord Hendy who gave a geographical and historical reminder of how we got to where we are today.

Crucially, we have been reminded about how anti-trade union legislation has been weaponised by the Government to undermine organising in the workplace. The Government sometimes treat trade unions as pantomime villains from a bygone era and seek out conflict, provoke it and sometimes prolong it. Workers lose out, but so do patients, children and the public. Here is the thing: I think the public are seeing through that this time. They are not buying the rather lame government rhetoric.

That is because trade unions have changed, and so has work. The journey from school gate to factory gate with jobs for life, working alongside the same people for decades, has gone. There are positives as well as negatives to this. There are more opportunities for cleaner, safer and more highly skilled occupations. Moving between sectors is no longer unusual. Our creative industries, design, healthcare, universities and science are providing amazing chances for young people that their grandparents could never have imagined possible.

However, with that comes disconnection. The shared experience and identity that once bound workers and communities together is disappearing, and organising in the workplace and recruiting members to trade unions are completely different today. When short-term or zero-hours contracts, insecure work, the gig economy and self-employment—sometimes genuine, often not—are commonplace, the foundation of trade unionism, the idea of a stable community with a common interest working together to improve conditions for everyone over time, changes. Trade unionism is adapting to the challenges of the rapidly changing workplace as well as to what it is confronted with by the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is right to alert the Government to the modernising face of trade unions. I have heard him advise his Conservative colleagues that they should make peace with the movement. He is right about that because there are many benefits to employers and the Government from a constructive, respectful relationship, not least the absence of industrial action, but also safer workplaces with fewer injuries, lower staff turnover and lower absence rates.

My noble friend Lady O’Grady made a compelling case for e-ballots. We are all democrats here. It is indefensible that we do not allow them when we can access healthcare and banking services and do so many things through apps and online, yet trade unionists are not allowed to take part in democratic processes using well-established means. There is no defence of that position, and I urge the Minister to look into this urgently.

There is no doubt that organising in the workplace is harder now than it was in the past and that trade unions need to adapt how they operate to appeal to a new, younger workforce, but that is happening. Work recently undertaken by the TUC exploring ways to engage with a younger, more diverse potential membership offers an exciting and different vision of trade union activity. However, the Government do not seem to want to see this innovation or care about the benefits of trade unions and prefer to fight some sort of culture war. Rather than respectful negotiation, the Government pass unnecessary and counterproductive legislation that will not resolve disruption and makes negotiation harder. Sadly, we have seen that again just this week.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, has drawn together the various strands of trade union membership, the changing nature of work and the cost of living crisis. We know that mortgage holders are facing increases of on average £2,900 per year for their mortgage, and we have to wonder about a Government who are prioritising an uncosted tax cut for people with pension pots of more than £2 million in that context.

To end on a positive note, this has been a helpful discussion, reminding us of what trade unions are really all about and the value and benefit they bring to the workplace and wider society. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for enabling it and look forward to the Minister’s maiden speech.

My Lords, it is a huge privilege to be a newly introduced Member of this House and to be making my maiden speech in drawing this debate to a close. I am humbled that others have thought me worthy of contributing my expertise to this House and have trusted me with the role of Baroness-in-Waiting from the outset. I give grateful thanks to all those who have helped me along this journey to date and to the numerous colleagues and staff who have been very generous with their time and in sharing their knowledge.

I have been very fortunate to have had numerous careers since my bilingual years at Llandysul Grammar School. Little did I know then that my love of science and medicine would lead me to the City of London, that my science and finance expertise would lead me into local and then European politics, and that, finally, my accumulated knowledge would lead me to this historic place.

Throughout my varied career, I have had numerous mentors and champions who have taught me much about helping others and giving back. My early political career was supported by Women2Win; I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington, who, with my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford, acted as my supporter at my introduction. As a newly elected Welsh politician in 2009, another Welsh female leader, the late Cheryl Gillan, was an important ally. I hope she would have been approving of my new role. Supporting women leaders across all sectors has been and will continue to be one of my areas of focus. I have benefited from opportunity and will endeavour to help others to do so. I firmly believe that where you come from should not limit your ambition or determine your future success.

With that in mind, I will respond to the Question posed by my noble friend Lord Balfe on the Government’s plans to support the lives and prospects of skilled professional graduate workers who are members of a trade union. I ask noble Lords to bear with me, as this will bear no resemblance to my original speech with all the changes I have made in incorporating, I hope, answers to noble Lords’ questions.

The Government recognise the challenges people across all groups are facing with the cost of living and high inflation, and we are absolutely committed to providing support and finding solutions. We also recognise the important role that trade unions play in representing and supporting workers from a range of different occupations and all income groups, increasingly including those from higher education backgrounds and professions over the last decade, as we have heard.

While the issues we are debating inevitably affect wider society, my noble friend Lord Balfe raises some powerful points about the increased pressure on middle-income earners. We recognise these concerns, especially about the higher costs of childcare and mortgage rates. That is why the Chancellor met with major mortgage providers last week and has agreed a mortgage charter covering 85% of the market. This gives peace of mind about extending an existing mortgage or moving on to an interest-only mortgage for six months, giving respite to those who are worried about repayments. It also offers new protections from repossession through a minimum 12-month period from the first missed payment to repossession without consent.

Increased pressures, especially on working families, are also the reason why we have introduced landmark childcare policies, including offering eligible working parents in England access to 30 hours of free childcare per week from when their child is nine months old to when they start school. Alongside all of this, we are committed to ensuring that people keep more of what they earn while ensuring the UK’s economic stability. We have an income tax system that is already highly progressive. We have made large rises to starting tax thresholds, ensuring that they are historically high, which also means that middle earners benefit.

These are just some examples, and we remain committed to considering a range of solutions and working with different industries on the support available. The support we have already provided to all households has reached £94 billion, or £3,300 per household on average, across 2022-23 and 2023-24.

Noble Lords are right to identify that the critical driver of these increased pressures on individuals is inflation. That is exactly why one of the Prime Minister’s priorities is to halve inflation this year. That is the single best way to keep costs and interest rates down for people across the spectrum. We have a clear plan to deliver that, which includes our steadfast support for the Bank of England as it takes all necessary action to return inflation to the target of 2%. It also includes ensuring that monetary and fiscal policy work together. That is why we are making difficult but responsible decisions on tax and spending to manage our borrowing and get debt falling.

There was a question about why we need to concentrate on debt falling. Ensuring that debt as a share of GDP falls over the medium term is essential for us to provide the foundations for sustainable growth.

Finally, decisive action is required on the drivers of inflation—for example, tackling high energy prices by holding down energy bills for households and businesses, alongside investing in long-term energy security.

Through these three major steps we are on track. The majority of major forecasters agree in forecasting inflation to halve by the end of the year and subsequently to return to target. Taming inflation is not just beneficial for families and businesses now but a prerequisite for future growth. That is why we have a plan for long-term growth and are focused on securing a pipeline of talent for high-growth sectors of the future, such as digital and financial services, as your Lordships have mentioned, which drive productivity gains and, I hope, lead to higher wages and greater opportunities for individuals.

As referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, we are investing £3.8 billion over this Parliament to strengthen further and higher education so that everyone, including skilled graduates, can access high-quality opportunities to upskill and, if necessary, retrain throughout their lives. Many noble Lords referred to the aviation sector, which I imagine is also covered by this. I would be happy to write to the noble Lord on his point about how the DfE is helping to support graduates have the skills to join the workforce. We will continue to interact with your Lordships on that.

In addition to support with growing costs and inflation, a number of your Lordships also referenced the important role that trade unions play in supporting individuals. The Government recognise this role and we have always been and will remain willing to engage with the unions. For example, there were constructive discussions with the unions and the TUC during Covid, to which I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, will attest. Workers have the right to join a trade union. That right is protected under our law. All union members have the right to participate in union activities and individual workers can enforce these rights at an employment tribunal.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, suggests, collective bargaining is an important tool. It is largely a matter for individual employers, their employees and their unions. Most collective bargaining in the UK takes place because employers have voluntarily agreed to recognise a trade union and bargain with it. However, where they refuse to recognise unions voluntarily, legislation provides for a statutory recognition procedure. Unions that wish to obtain that statutory recognition can apply to the Central Arbitration Committee, which has dealt with over 1,200 cases since the statutory procedure was brought in back in 1999. This is fundamental: if a majority of workers in a workplace, whether graduates or otherwise, want to organise and be represented by a trade union, they have the right and the practical means to make that happen.

I was invited to agree to enhanced dialogue on collective bargaining. In light of what I have just said, the Government do not believe that a formal dialogue with unions and employers to extend collective bargaining is necessary at this time.

I think we can all agree, however, that organising in this way should never result in the blacklisting of trade unionists. That is unacceptable and I am glad that we have legislation that protects against it, including the reinforced powers in the more recent Data Protection Act 2018, which protects the use of personal data, including information on trade union membership. The Information Commissioner’s Office regulates this and has the power to take enforcement action. Anyone who has evidence of this occurring can present that information to the ICO.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, asked about electronic balloting. I can confirm that the required consultations have now occurred and that we are considering Sir Ken’s recommendations and will respond in due course.

I close by once again thanking my noble friend Lord Balfe for his important Question. This Government are committed to supporting all workers with the immediate challenges that the country faces, while also setting the conditions for long-term prosperity. This requires us to cut inflation and focus on long-term growth. It also includes us recognising the valuable role that unions can play in helping their members across all groups.

Sitting suspended.