Motion to Approve
My Lords, these regulations enact the reforms made by the Trade Union Act 2016 to the powers of the Certification Officer, the regulator of trade unions and employers’ associations. These regulations have been commented on by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee in its 25th report on grounds of policy interest.
Before I explain the contents of the regulations, it is important to provide the context to these reforms. Trade unions have an important role in effective industrial relations and in wider society. There is a legitimate public interest that trade unions run their affairs according to what is required of them, so it is necessary that they have a responsible and diligent regulator. The reforms in the Trade Union Act are about proportionate and effective regulation. We are bringing the powers of the Certification Officer up to date with those of comparable regulators in other sectors.
The Trade Union Act brings three reforms to the role. The first enhances the Certification Officer’s investigatory powers. These reforms were implemented in commencement regulations made in December 2021 and will commence in April. They are not the subject of these regulations, so I will give only a brief overview. Currently, union members may bring complaints to the Certification Officer—for example, on the conduct of elections. The Trade Union Act gives the Certification Officer the same powers to investigate all breaches that she currently has for financial matters and the register of members. This will enable her to act without having to rely on a complaint from a member. This is a wholly reasonable power for a regulator.
These regulations bring into effect the second and third reforms introduced under the Trade Union Act: financial penalties and a levy. We consulted separately on these reforms in 2017 and conducted a further engagement exercise on the levy last year. Unsurprisingly, trade unions made up the majority of the responses to these consultations and the further engagement exercise. I will go on to explain the measures that we have put in place to address the concerns raised.
The Trade Union (Power of the Certification Officer to Impose Financial Penalties) Regulations 2022 strengthen the Certification Officer’s enforcement powers by allowing her to impose financial penalties against organisations that breach their statutory obligations. Penalties will be banded into three groups, according to the severity of the obligation breached. This approach was supported during consultation. For breaches of the most important statutory obligations, including the proper conduct of union elections and political funding, the Certification Officer will be able to impose a maximum penalty of £20,000. This is in line with penalties imposed by other bodies, such as the Electoral Commission.
For other breaches of statutory governance requirements, including keeping the membership register up to date, the Certification Officer will be able to impose a maximum penalty of £10,000. For breaches relating to requirements to provide information or comply with investigatory requirements, or breaches of internal union rules, the maximum penalty will be £5,000. The regulations provide for a 50% reduction in the maxima for unions whose membership is under 100,000 people. In response to concerns raised in the consultation regarding the impact on small unions, we will not be charging interest for late payment of penalties. The Trade Union (Levy Payable to the Certification Officer) Regulations provide for a levy on unions and employers’ associations to fund the Certification Officer’s work. In this time of financial constraint, it is right that organisations should contribute towards a levy. This is a widely used way to fund such regulators.
The regulations establish a levy framework that is equitable, affordable, predictable and simple. To ensure that the levy is equitable, the Certification Officer will be able to broadly apportion the levy between the different categories of regulated organisations—that is, non-federated trade unions, federated trade unions, non-federated employers’ associations and federated employers’ associations—based on how much time she spends on each of them. To ensure the levy is affordable for all, lower-income organisations will be exempt from the levy entirely. No organisation will pay more than 2.5% of their annual income, as set out in their annual return to the Certification Officer.
To ensure that the levy is predictable each year, the Government will continue to fund the cost of any external inspectors, as the use and cost of these is variable. This was discussed at the time that we debated the Trade Union Bill. For the same reason, the Government will also fund the cost of any external legal advice that the Certification Officer may seek. This was not identified during the passage of the Act, but we believe it will allow for a fairer levy. Finally, to ensure the levy is simple and transparent, the Certification Officer will need to aim to ensure that income from the levy matches her expenditure over a three-year period. She will also need to explain how she calculates the amount of levy that each organisation is charged.
Separate regulations will abolish the majority of the Certification Officer’s existing fees, which will be subsumed into the levy. These will be made under the negative procedure, and we intend that they come into force at the same time as the levy. In response to requests by trade unions during consultation, two fees will be preserved: the fee for listing as an organisation, and the fee for a union to be granted a certificate of independence.
We recognise that these are significant changes for the organisations involved, albeit that they are a clear and required implementation of the Trade Union Act 2016. That is why we announced these reforms in June last year, to allow trade unions and employers’ associations time to prepare before they are implemented in April 2022. This also allowed the Certification Officer time to put the systems in place to determine and charge the levy.
In conclusion, these reforms are not about constraining the ability of unions and employers’ associations to do their valuable work. These regulations will give the Certification Officer the tools that she needs to do her job as effectively as possible, and ensure that the taxpayer no longer foots the whole of a bill that unions and employers’ associations can well afford to pay in part. I commend both these regulations to the House.
Amendment to the Motion
As an amendment to the above motion, at the end insert “but that this House regrets that the Regulations impose an effective tax on trade unions to cover the costs of the Certification Officer, to whom very few complaints have been recorded, and which is not the case for other civil society institutions.”
My Lords, these statutory instruments introduce what is, effectively, a tax on trade unions and subject them to criminal-style fines for breaches of complex labour law. This is part of a package of measures that includes allowing anti-union organisations to file time-consuming complaints against them, without a full parliamentary consideration.
These changes are the wrong priority for Ministers and come at a tough time for unions. Union members, including doctors, nurses, school staff, transport workers, care staff and shop workers, have been on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic, and unions have worked flat-out to support workers working right across our economy. Adjusting to an array of new rules, and facing time-consuming complaints initiated often by hostile groups and additional financial burdens, will drain union resources from the vital work that they undertake. Unions are accountable to their members and have a strong track record of complying with their legal duties. The Certification Officer’s annual report for 2020-21 reveals that she dealt with just 34 complaints in that year. Not one enforcement order was imposed.
The Government have portrayed these changes as tidying up and as unfinished business left over from the Trade Union Act 2016, but it is notable that Ministers have not dealt with other outstanding issues stemming from that legislation—issues that could benefit trade union members by extending and improving the quality of democracy, such as electronic balloting.
The Trade Union Act 2016 contained measures to overhaul the role of the Certification Officer, who is responsible, as we have heard, for statutory functions relating to trade unions and employers’ associations. That legislation contained a levy to fund the CO’s work, financial penalties on unions for breaches of statute, and to enable the CO to be given greater investigatory powers. For the past five years, these provisions have remained dormant. However, without much notice, in June 2021, the Government announced that they intended to activate the powers. They then ran a further engagement exercise—as the Minister has fairly set out—on the levy element, which closed in July.
We contend that these plans are bad for working people in our country. The Government intend to recoup the cost of running the Certification Officer from those she oversees from April this year. The vast bulk of this will come from trade unions and their members. Some costs, including external legal advice and external investigators, will be excluded. The Certification Officer has estimated that she is likely to need a budget of £1.15 million. The TUC believes it is inappropriate to treat trade unions like profit-making companies, which are often required to fund their own regulator. Unions are not, as we have argued on many occasions, for-profit organisations; they are set up solely for the benefit of members. Other bodies with social roles, such as political parties or charities, do not pay levies to the Electoral Commission or the Charity Commission, respectively.
As a result of the levy, unions will have less capacity to negotiate better pay and conditions for working people. There is no significant limit, as far as we can judge, on how much the levy can grow in the future. There is huge scope for a future Certification Officer to further expand their role, confident of course that the expenses for such activity will be met by unions.
The Government also propose disproportionate penalties of up to £20,000 for statutory breaches; for example, in the running of general-secretary elections. These penalties resemble fines in criminal proceedings. However, they can be imposed on the basis of a civil rather than criminal standard of proof. In our view, there is no need or justification for these new penalties. Unions are accountable to their members through their democratic structures and have a long track record of complying with their legal duties.
As I said earlier, the Certification Officer’s annual report shows that she dealt with just 34 complaints last year—that is one complaint for every 200,000 union members. Not a single enforcement order was necessary or imposed. This is a disproportionate measure, having disproportionate impact on working people’s organisations.
The provisions, which require just a commencement order, will give the Certification Officer new, wide-ranging investigatory powers on matters such as elections, political fund management and union mergers. Currently, the Certification Officer can act only on complaints from a union member, but unions could now face often time-consuming complaints stimulated by groups hostile to the work of unions.
I mentioned earlier that there are other priorities to which the Government could have turned their attention for improving the way in which unions operate. Introducing a levy and increased powers for the Certification Officer is not merely tidying up; it goes much further than that. Other issues, including electronic balloting, remain outstanding. The Act required an independent review of allowing unions the option of using electronic balloting during statutory votes, such as elections of general-secretaries. Unions increasingly use them for non-statutory ballots, such as indicative votes on pay claims. Other organisations, such as the National Trust and even the Conservative Party, use such approaches for their selection procedures, using e-balloting for key votes.
The review, which was published in December 2017, recommended pilots as a first step. However, more than four years on, Ministers have yet to respond to it. Unions believe that electronic balloting would better meet the expectations of members and encourage greater participation in their democratic structures. Surely that objective is one we can all share. I therefore invite the Minister to give a commitment this evening to bring forward regulations that would enhance democratic participation by union members, rather than adding burden to the work that unions undertake.
This Government have rarely shown themselves to be a friend of our unions, but they could begin to repair the damage to that relationship by simply parking this vindictive, unnecessary and redundant legislation without losing face. It adds wasteful expense to union activity and will force unions to deal with additional red tape—both things Conservatives traditionally oppose.
What of the levelling-up agenda? Unions have levelling up in their DNA; it is in the way they think and act. This measure goes against the spirit that the Government are trying to mobilise to improve our communities—our working communities in particular—up and down the country.
I hope—not with much expectation—that the Minister will adopt a sensible and proportionate course of action this evening, but in the absence of that, I hope the House will support my amendment to the Motion. I beg to move.
My Lords, like many debates on statutory instruments in this House, the real substance of this debate is not particularly about the topic on the agenda. A moment’s thought will tell us that this is really about party funding. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, on behalf of the Labour Party, has to oppose this in the way the Labour Party will oppose most attempts to place any form of restriction on the trade union movement. As we all will realise, historically, the Labour Party started as the political wing of the trade union movement. Of course, in recent years Labour is even more dependent on funding from the trade union movement.
I have obviously been a critic for many years of our system of funding, which has led Labour to be in a position where they require this, but the problems Labour has are as nothing compared with the current funding problems of the Tory party, with Russian donations and skirting very close to the line on the sales of honours. I do not think it is for the Tory party to criticise Labour for taking the position of the trade union movement on this.
I have every sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, on this issue. As he and one of his colleagues in the House of Commons commented, to make trade unions pay for certification is like making charities pay for the Charity Commission. That is a very valid point that the Minister needs to answer.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, indicated, the sums taken from the unions, for minimal advantage to the taxpayer, would mostly be spent on the necessary protection of their members. I know people assume that unions are simply political activists, but most of the money they raise is spent on that. This money will be taken directly from their members and will not be used for that purpose.
Finally, I thought the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, went slightly light on the Tory party and the Government on this issue. Having watched them over my 25 years in your Lordships’ House, I think that hostility to the trade union movement is deep in the Tory party’s DNA. It goes back to the reforms created by Margaret Thatcher, which they believe sets the standard for all future activity by the Tory party. It is unfortunate. I support the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. These proposals are very unfair.
My Lords, this is the first opportunity I have had to speak since my near-death experience nine months ago. It would be wrong not to thank the Lord Speaker for all the support he has given me and my family and to thank the rest of the noble Lords here who know what has gone on. I also thank Dr Wong in Liverpool general hospital for somehow saving my life. It is a privilege to be back.
I declare an interest as the former leader of Unite. This levy is correctly being called a trade union tax. Indeed, it is nothing less, as we know, than an ideological attack on workers and their families. It is part of a pattern of anti-trade union legislation that also includes the Elections Bill. As the previous speaker just said, taxing trade unions to fund their own regulator makes as much sense as taxing charities to fund the Charity Commission. It could be up to 2.5% of annual income. How on earth can that be justified? How on earth can that be right? By taking this money from trade unions, the Government are restricting their ability to support members at work at a time when workers are facing a cost-of-living crisis and trade union help is needed more than ever.
The new regulations unfortunately also open the door to vexatious complaints—whether from vindictive employers, far-right organisations or even the Conservative Party itself—which threaten to consume the regulator’s time and resources, and therefore cost more money for the trade unions. Is that the aim? As has been said, last year, 34 complaints were made to the Certification Officer and no enforcement action was taken. Clearly, this is a solution to a problem that does not exist. Unions naturally fear that this number will dramatically rise when absolutely anybody, not just union members, has the power to make complaints. Of course, it will be the unions who foot the bill.
I will close on some straightforward questions for the Minister, one or two of which have already been mentioned. Why are the Government bringing forward these aspects of the Trade Union Act 2016, but not making any progress on the important issue of electronic balloting? Where are the pilot projects called for in the Knight review, which could be very helpful? We find ourselves in a situation where they are not being brought forward now. Is it the very fact that, democratically, people do not want trade unions to really be democratic? It is just an attack. Could the Minister also tell me when we can expect to see the much-promised employment Bill that will
“make the UK the best place in the world to work”—
a manifesto commitment no less, unlike so much of the government business we are currently dealing with—or was this just an empty pledge to fool the workers into voting for the bosses’ party at the last election? Actions speak louder than words, and this cynical and repressive trade union tax speaks for itself. We must stop or remove this vindictive legislation.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to see the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, back in his place. We all welcome him back, although I do not agree with everything he had to say.
I have three questions on these instruments. First, is this package too bureaucratic? This is something we spoke about wanting to avoid during the passage of the Trade Union Bill, but have red tape and vexatious claims been minimised? Contributions to the debate so far suggest not, but is that fair? I hope the Minister will be able to enlighten us.
My second question is about electronic balloting. What is the Minister’s latest assessment? So much of our world is now online and Covid has accelerated that extraordinarily—indeed, we are about to debate the online harms Bill. Can we safely move forward on electronic balloting in this area or others, or do the reservations I remember being raised during the passage of the Trade Union Bill remain?
Finally, noble Lords will recall my happy experiences with the union USDAW in my own career at Tesco. Did it respond to the consultation? If so, what did it say?
My Lords, to follow on from those last points, it almost seemed to be the case from the Minister’s presentation that unions had somehow agreed with quite a lot of the proposals being put, which is very far from the case.
I do not want to go over the 2016 Act, but, at the time, many of us thought it was the product of a certain mindset in parts of Conservative Central Office, which was still bent on fighting the battles of the 1970s and 1980s. If you were that kind of Tory, why not ladle extra dollops of red tape, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, just said, on the old enemy? After all, it polishes your credentials in the eyes of some of the Conservative associations, it does not cost very much and it kicks your opponents hard, which with a workable majority you can do.
Unions are now to face a Certification Officer with new and extended powers to impose these fines—very steep fines in terms of union finances—and to make unions pay the bills of the Certification Officer. These are the motives of a suspicious, hostile Government, who regard unions as conspiracies, plotting mayhem and confusion—much as some of us regard the present regime in Downing Street. Yet unlike our views on Downing Street, the Government’s view is certainly not borne out by the facts. British unions are already heavily regulated by any standard applying in western democracies, yet the Certification Officer is rarely troubled by complaints of maladministration and injustice, as has been pointed out already in this debate. There is a handful of complaints each year, and the vast majority are dismissed or withdrawn, and there were no enforcement orders last year.
So what is the problem? There is not really one at all. The motive for this legislation is ignoring the fact that unions are a hallmark of a free and democratic society, and a force for greater equality in an increasingly unequal society.
The new Certification Officer could well be like a police officer looking for work to justify his or her existence, no doubt having actively to encourage people to come forward with complaints. The Certification Officer can take them themselves, as we heard the Minister spell out. Perhaps there will be advertising for complainants, to boost the workload if it is meagre. The aim is to tie up unions in expensive litigation and force them to pay the costs of that litigation, as well as for the administration of the Certification Officer’s office.
Can the Minister tell us precisely whether there are any other regulators of voluntary, not-for-profit, democratic organisations which have to pay for their regulator? Political parties do not, as we have heard, and charities do not, so who else does? It is not the same as the City or the banks, which are profit-making, private sector bodies, yet unions collectively are likely to face a seven-figure bill for the privilege of being complained against. After all, this is fertile territory for opponents of the national executives of unions. Unions are lively, democratic organisations, with all the cut and thrust that goes with that, and sometimes it is fair to say that the losers do not always lose gracefully.
These regulations and the Act which spawns them are unworthy of a great democracy. I take this opportunity before the regulations pass into law to register my disgust and contempt for them and their promoters.
My Lords, first, I should declare an interest as the president of BALPA, the TUC-affiliated union for pilots.
This is just unnecessary, is it not? The Act was passed in 2016. I remember that my noble friend who just spoke was the Minister then and we had one or two set-tos, but in the end, to my mind, her knowledge of the trade union movement helped ameliorate that Bill and get it on to the statute book. I had liked to think that the non-activity over the past two or three years meant that the Government had had another thought and decided that these regulations did not need to be brought into being—and of course they do not. They are not going to add anything. We have heard about the 34 complaints with no enforcement orders and about the fact that no other voluntary organisation pays for its regulator, and we know that the whole of this office is really not needed for the purpose for which it is being put forward.
What I would say though, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, is that we should not make this a battle between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party over funding. It is not. It is about unnecessary control of the trade union movement. The majority of my union members voted for this Government. I am absolutely convinced of that, having talked to them. Some 30% of paying trade unionists vote Conservative. We have got to get over this idea that somehow the trade union movement is comprised of hard-working, left-wing socialists.
My wife was a district councillor for some years; she dealt with unions in rural England, and said that most of them were well to the right of her in their political beliefs. Most of them were voting for the Conservative Members of Parliament to be found in the depths of East Anglia. So let us get over this idea that union members are all Labour and not Conservative. It is important to get over it because I think the Minister needs to get over it and the Government need to get over it.
I have said over many years that we will have reached an achievement in this country when, just as the leader of the Opposition goes to the CBI on a regular basis, so the leader of the Conservative Party appears at the TUC and makes a speech and answers questions. Breaking down this divide is really quite essential if we are going to have industrial relations peace in this country.
We have not got a lot of time, so I am going to leave the Minister with just two questions, one of which has already been asked in one form. First, what, if anything, are the Government prepared to do about vexatious litigants? There will be people who will go to the regulator purely to cause trouble—every union has them; even BALPA has the odd member who gets great pleasure out of trying to run rings around its national executive. To what protection are the Government prepared to look to protect vexatious claims against unions? Secondly, the Government have pussyfooted around on electronic balloting the entire time I have been in this House. There are no questions about having a secure electronic ballot. Is it not time that the Government made a generalist gesture to the trade union movement and let it have what is a totally secure system, at its own choice, for running internal elections?
Those are two things the Government can give us. It will cost them nothing but it will show the Conservative-voting trade unionists of this country that the Government are a Government of the country and not just one part of it.
My Lords, the Minister’s justification for the levy is that it is entirely normal for a regulator to be paid for by those whose businesses are subjected to regulation. That argument is untenable for at least five reasons.
First, the CO is not a regulator in the same way that others are. She has an administrative role to list trade unions and employers’ associations but her principal function is judicial, regulated exclusively by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. It is confined to the following matters: elections; disciplinary proceedings; balloting, other than for industrial action; the constitution and proceedings of the executive; elections for president, general-secretary and executive committee; political funds; amalgamations; transfers and engagements; accounting records; and annual returns. All these are purely matters of internal trade union affairs. The Secretary of State has the power to specify other matters by order but has not done so.
In relation to these issues, the CO acts judicially. If she receives an application from a member against the union which manifests a prima facie case, the CO conducts a formal hearing. Both parties take their turns—often through counsel—to present their evidence, cross-examine witnesses and make legal submissions. The CO then hands down a decision and may make a declaration if she finds a breach.
Appeals lie from the CO to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which is of course a division of the High Court presided over by a High Court judge. There are few regulators with such judicial functions and where the governing legislation has specified a direct route of appeal to the High Court. However, one such is the employment tribunal, from which there is the identical route of appeal to the EAT. Noble Lords will recall that the Government legislated to impose fees on employment tribunal claimants but the Supreme Court, in the Unison case, held that that was unlawful; the Government consequently withdrew the fees regime. However, what is significant in this debate is that the Government have never suggested a levy on employers to pay for employment tribunals. It is not surprising therefore that trade unions point to the fundamental injustice of them paying a levy to meet judicial costs under the legislation which applies to them when the costs of adjudication under the legislation which applies to employers is met by taxpayers.
The second point is that the justification for the imposition of virtually every regulator is the need to protect the public. That does not apply to the CO. The primary purpose of bodies such as the CO and the employment tribunal is not to protect the public but to adjudicate in disputes between specified classes of claimants and respondents. In the case of tribunals, this is between workers and employers, and in the case of the CO between unions and members. The jurisdiction of each is limited to the statutorily specified subject matters. That is why members of the public cannot complain to the employment tribunal or to the CO that a friend of theirs has been unfairly dismissed by an employer or unfairly disciplined by a union.
Therefore, the CO is not there to protect the public from breaches of the relevant rules but to give trade union members, and only trade union members, an avenue of judicial complaint. It is true that the Government have now extended the remit of the CO to investigate matters on her own initiative, even where no member has complained, but the scope of her jurisdiction is still confined to the specific items I have listed. An infraction by a trade union in any of those matters will not impinge on members of the public and neither will any member of the public have the right to bring proceedings before the CO about it. So the public interest argument is simply without merit.
This is important, for although unions are complaining that newspapers and political parties hostile to them will rush to make complaints to the CO, such complainants cannot make a formal application and, if she thinks there is any merit in an informal complaint, the CO will be called upon herself to act as investigator, prosecutor and judge. That is not a position she is likely to enjoy, I imagine. Indeed, I doubt that she will welcome the extra workload of investigating allegations from unaffected outsiders about the internal workings of a union where no member feels sufficiently aggrieved to make a formal application to her.
My third point, which has already been dealt with by my noble friends Lord Bassam and Lord Monks, is that where regulators are funded by a levy, they are invariably conducting a business for profit, or at least earning a living from the regulated activity. That does not apply to trade unions, which make no money from the regulated activities.
That leads to the fourth point, which is that where a regulator is funded by a levy, those who must pay it are able to deduct the cost of their levy from the tax they pay on their profits. Trade unions cannot do that. Their income is derived, as has been said, almost exclusively from members’ subscriptions and goes to offset their running costs. They have no profits to tax. They do not have a tax bill against which to claim their levy.
The fifth and final point—there is a lot more which could be said—is that this is utterly unwarranted. My noble friends have already suggested how rare these cases are, but let me contrast the CO’s jurisdiction with that of the employment tribunal. There are 32 million workers in the UK. Last year, some 118,000 complaints were made against employers in employment tribunals. That is a rate of four in 1,000—one in 250. In comparison, there are 6.56 million trade union members in 141 trade unions. Last year, the CO received 14 applications—which, it is true, contained a number of complaints. The year before that, she received seven applications, and in the preceding year, 15 applications. Last year, there were 14 applications against 11 unions—I include applications which were dismissed as having no merit. This level of applications in proportion to the number of trade union members is infinitesimally small—two in a million. It should also be noted how few unions receive a complaint, yet all are to pay for the levy except for the smallest.
This legislation is unfair, unnecessary and speaks only to the Government’s malevolence towards trade unions, which they regard as distorting the labour market and preventing wages being driven down to the lowest level that workers will tolerate. I support the amendment.
My Lords, in 2016, I was not yet a Member of your Lordships’ House and I protested on many occasions, very loudly, outside this House at the trade union legislation then going through the processes here. I trust that I shall always be able to protest very loudly outside this House, whether standing still or moving around, when legislation of this type is proposed.
The Minister talks of the valuable work of unions, but the actions of this Government belie that. My noble friends on this side, in particular my noble friend Lord Monks, have talked about the level of constraint and regulation on the trade union movement in this country. From my engagement with trade unions across Europe, both east and west, I know that to be true. This is therefore a regulation too far. While I do not agree with all the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, I certainly agree with his opening remarks that this is unwarranted and gives rise to the view that this Government are anti-trade union.
I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions to the debate. It is great to see the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, back with us in such hale and hearty form. I had the pleasure of replying to the debate when the noble Lord made his maiden speech, so I regard it as a particular honour that I get the chance to respond to him again tonight, albeit in slightly less harmonious circumstances.
Turning to the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I thank him for raising his concerns, although, as will become clear, I do not agree with very much of what he said. However, I reiterate what I said at the start: unions play an important role in some aspects of industrial relations and have an important part to play in our economic recovery. It is therefore crucial that the public have confidence that they are regulated effectively and fairly.
These reforms will bring the Certification Officer in line with the powers and funding arrangements of other regulators. They will allow the Certification Officer to take robust enforcement action against an organisation that breaches its statutory obligations. The reforms will ensure that the taxpayer no longer has to pay in full for the regulation of trade unions and employers’ associations. The cost will be borne in part by the organisations that can afford it.
Despite many of the comments that were made, there are many precedents for this: a number of other regulators are funded by a levy. For example, the Groceries Code Adjudicator, the Office of Rail and Road, and the Pensions Regulator are all funded by a variety of levy schemes. The Pensions Regulator uses a banded scheme based on membership of pension funds. Companies House is partly funded by fees from company directors. The Financial Reporting Council is paid for in large part by the auditors that it regulates.
Other regulators also have a range of sanctions at their disposal. The Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office, like the Certification Officer, can either take civil enforcement action or launch criminal prosecutions. The Electoral Commission’s compliance notices are similar to the Certification Officer’s enforcement orders. The Electoral Commission also has a range of financial penalties at its disposal, from £200 to £20,000, which mirrors those proposed for the trade union Certification Officer. Those instances are all slightly different, but it is not true that this is somehow something being imposed uniquely on trade unions.
In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, we have of course considered the affordability of the levy and how much it can grow in the future. As no organisation will pay more than 2.5% of its annual income, and lower-income organisations will be exempted from the levy entirely, I think his criticisms on that were unwarranted and have no validity. As the Certification Officer regulates both employers’ associations and unions, it is fair that employers’ associations also contribute in part towards the levy.
The Trade Union Act 2016 contains an important safeguard that requires the Certification Officer to aim to ensure that the total amount levied over a three-year period does not exceed the actual expenses she has incurred. We believe that this will ensure that the levy remains predictable and affordable. The Certification Officer has always gone about their duties in an independent and impartial way, and of course that will continue.
I will now answer some of the other points raised during the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lord Balfe all raised the issue of electronic balloting. Indeed, the Trade Union Act included provisions to introduce electronic balloting for union elections. A review of electronic balloting was conducted by Sir Ken Knight, but before responding to the recommendations in his review, the Government were required by Section 4 of the Trade Union Act 2016 to consult relevant organisations, including professionals from expert associations, to seek their advice and recommendations. We have now done this, and we are finalising our consideration of Sir Ken’s recommendations before we issue our response in due course.
I have answered many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, about the comparison with other regulated bodies. I reiterate that the role of the Certification Officer is unique, as is the role of trade unions, and that comparisons with other sectors, while there are some parallels, are not totally relevant.
The noble Lord, Lord Woodley, and my noble friend Lord Balfe raised the possibility of vexatious complaints being made at a cost to unions. I must say, respectfully, that the Government disagree. When there are vexatious complaints, we do not expect that the Certification Officer will spend much time on them. The CO is a public authority, and she has to act reasonably. She cannot appoint an inspector unless a new, higher judicial test has been met that she has reasonable grounds to suspect that a breach of the regulations has occurred.
The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, raised the point about the significant limit on how much the levy could raise in similar years. The noble Lord, Lord Monks, also raised the point that the Certification Officer can somehow just do as she pleases. I responded to that in my previous comments, but we have removed most of the variable costs from the levy and, as I said, the Certification Officer, as a public authority, has to act reasonably, and that is a higher judicial test than in the current regulations.
Lastly, my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe asked me whether USDAW had responded to the consultation. I am afraid I do not have that information with me, but I will ask officials to look through the consultations and write to her accordingly.
In conclusion, this is not about constraining the ability of unions and employers’ associations to do their work. There is, unquestionably, a strong public interest in appropriately regulated trade unions. These reforms are about modernising the Certification Officer’s role to ensure that she can continue to deliver exactly on that. Therefore, I commend these draft regulations to the House.
My Lords, I am very disappointed by what the Minister has had to say to the House this evening. I am not persuaded away from my view that this is a vindictive piece of secondary legislation. The Minister has not really adduced a strong case in his own defence, I fear. It was interesting to hear Back-Benchers on the Government Benches making the point that this could be seen as vindictive and as having a go at unions for the sake of it, and that there was a need in the Government to grow up and try to learn to live with the trade union movement even if they do not like what it seeks to do.
The Minister did not really fully answer my noble friend Lord Hendy’s point about for-profit and not-for-profit organisations and there being a distinction. Many of the organisations that the Minister referred to have resources far in excess of those that trade unions have and are much better placed to make a contribution towards the regulation that they currently enjoy. I think the closest comparator is the Charity Commission and it does not seek to impose levies on charities. That would be unthinkable. Trade unions operate as not-for-profit organisations. They are there entirely for the benefit of their members and their role is very narrowly circumscribed to that.
I accept that we are not going to agree across the Dispatch Box on this issue. I regret that the Government have this attitude towards the valued work that unions undertake. The Minister himself talked of that. Looking at the hour and at the Chamber, it is not my intention to press my amendment because I can see that Members probably wish to move on with the Health and Care Bill. I am grateful for the time that we have had to discuss and debate these issues. No doubt we will return to them in future. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Bassam’s amendment to the Motion withdrawn.