by Dick Barry
The Trade Union Bill
Sajid Javid presented the Second Reading of the Trade Union Bill on 14 September. The debate began at 3.35pm and ended at 10pm. Given the importance of the subject, the speeches from Sajid Javid and Angela Eagle, the new Shadow Business Secretary are published in full with interjections from Backbench MPs.
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade (Sajid Javid):
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I see two or more new faces on the Opposition Front Bench this afternoon, and I want to begin my congratulating my new opposite number, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), on her appointment. She is certainly no stranger to Westminster; when she was first elected, I was just out of university. I believe that today marks the first time that our paths have crossed at the Dispatch Box, but I have long admired her skills as a parliamentarian and I look forward to working with her in the months ahead. I wish her all the very best.
I am also delighted to welcome the new Leader of the Opposition, the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), to the Front Bench. I congratulate him on his resounding victory in the election and wish him the very best of luck in his new role. He and I have two things in common, Mr Speaker. The first is that you will never catch either of us trying to eat a bacon sandwich. The second is that, like Members on both sides of the House, we both came into politics because we wanted to leave the world a better place than we found it. Obviously, you could put a rather large piece of cigarette paper between our ideas on how to achieve that, but his goal is the same as mine: a society that is fairer, more transparent and more just, in which the needs of the many are not outweighed by the wants of a few.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab):
He is going to withdraw the Bill.
That is wishful thinking by the new Leader of the Opposition.
Since the industrial revolution, Britain’s trade unions have done much to help to deliver that fairer society that I was describing. They have helped to secure higher wages, safer workplaces and stronger employee rights. They have fought for social justice and campaigned for freedom and democracy, and they have supplied the House with some of its most eloquent and influential Members, including Leaders of the Opposition.
Unions helped my father when he first worked in the cotton mills. They helped him again when a whites-only policy threatened to block him from becoming a bus driver. Just as the workplace has evolved and improved since that time, so the trade unions and the laws that govern them have developed too. I hope that, in 2015, no one would argue for the return of the closed shop, the show-of-hands votes in dimly lit car parks or the wildcat walk-outs enforced by a handful of heavies. That is why the Labour Government repealed not a single piece of union legislation during their 13 years in power. Now it is time for Britain’s unions to take the next step, and the Bill will help to achieve just that.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green):
The Secretary of State is pretending that the Bill is about democracy rather than being a vindictive attack on working people. If it is really about democracy and opening things up, why is he not lifting the ban on unions balloting online and in the workplace, which would be precisely the way to make a modern democracy work?
The hon. Lady will see that democracy and accountability are at the heart of the Bill—[Interruption.] She will see that a lot more clearly as I make progress with my opening remarks. Despite what people may have read in some reports, this Bill is not a declaration of war on the trade union movement. It is not an attempt to ban industrial action. It is not an attack on the rights of working people. It will not force strikers to seek police approval for their slogans or their tweets. It is not a reprise of Prime Minister Clement Attlee sending in troops to break up perfectly legal stoppages. It is simply the latest stage in the long journey of modernisation and reform. It will put power in the hands of the mass membership; bring much-needed sunlight to dark corners of the movement; and protect the rights of everyone in this country—those who are union members and those who are not, and those hard-working men and women who are hit hardest by industrial action.
Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab):
If this Bill was to be supported by the workers generally, some trade unions would already have given it support. This Bill is opposed by all those unions affiliated to the Labour movement and all those not affiliated to the Labour movement—even the Royal College of Nursing has said no to this Bill. It is a travesty and an intrusion upon the democracy of the workplace—get rid of it!
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has been able to get that off his chest. He will know, first, that the British people voted for this Bill at the general election and, secondly, that opinion poll after opinion poll has shown broad support for the measures we are discussing today.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op):
If this is such a fair and reasonable Bill, why does the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, Vince Cable, say that it is both “vindictive” and “unnecessary”?
There is a new Business Secretary in this Government and he is the one presenting this Bill.
Hon. Members from both sides of this House are, to some extent, insulated from the consequences of strike action. We are lucky enough to have generous travel expenses so that we can hire a car or a taxi when there is a transport strike. We have secure jobs, where we get paid whether we make it into the office or not. Even a Back Bencher is among the top 5% of UK earners, so we can afford to deal with the childcare costs that might come with a school closure or some disruption. But what about the low-paid restaurant staff who miss a day’s work and a day’s pay because of a stoppage called by a handful of transport workers? What about the self-employed builder who has to turn down a week-long job because a strike by teachers means that his kids cannot go to school? What about the single mother who cannot afford to lose a day’s pay by refusing to cross a picket line? Should she be subjected to abuse and harassment simply for going to work?
Dawn Butler (Brent Central) (Lab):
The Secretary of State talks about women on low pay. Many of these women and men do not have bank accounts, yet he is still trying to get rid of check-off, which makes it easier for people to join trade unions. How is that helping people to defend their own rights?
There is absolutely no relationship between check-off and bank accounts. Anyone who is able to take advantage of check-off must have a bank account in order to receive their salary in the first place. I also want to talk about the impact on taxpayers, who have to fund the salaries of public servants, only for those public servants to spend their time on trade union business. Do taxpayers not have a right at least to know what their taxes are being spent on? These are the people who are not represented in current trade union legislation, and by increasing transparency, fairness and democracy, they are the people that this Bill will protect. [Interruption.]
Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab):
That is outrageous. Have a bit of dignity. On this issue of consistency, if the trade unions are going to have to pay for the enhanced services of the certification officer, does the Secretary of State believe that Members of Parliament should pay for the costs of our regulator, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the certification officer is the regulator for trade unions, and it is perfectly usual for the regulator to be paid for by those whom they regulate.
John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con):
Does the Secretary of State agree that modern unions are at their best when they work with employers to get more skills, better training, higher quality work and better paid jobs, and that strikes are deeply damaging to the interests of the employees as well as the employers?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the heart of this Bill is partnership—partnership between trade unions and employers and other stakeholders. A great example of that can be seen at Toyota in Britain. It has not had one day of industrial action in 20 years, and that is because of the partnership that it rightly has with its trade union.
Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab):
The Secretary of State is giving the House the impression that London commuters would somehow be protected by his threshold. Is he aware that the recent industrial action on the tube would have passed those thresholds? He talks about partnership. Is it not the case that it is not the strikes and the ballots that are the problems, but the intransigent Mayor of London who is sitting behind him?
I am coming on to thresholds, but the hon. Gentleman’s point proves that this is not some kind of ban on industrial action. Strike action can rightly still take place where there is clear support from the membership of the union. Let me move on to thresholds. The whole point of strikes is to cause disruption, but the impact of industrial action on ordinary people—often the very working people whom unions were created to support—is such that it should ever be used only as a last resort. It should be taken only after the explicit backing of a majority of members. That is why this Bill sets a minimum turnout of 50% for industrial action ballots. If 1,000 union members are being asked to participate in a strike, at least 500 of them must vote for the ballot to be valid. In addition, strikes in certain public services will need the support of 40% of those eligible to vote. In our hypothetical 1,000-strong union, a successful ballot will require at least 500 votes to be cast with at least 400 of those being in favour.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab):
Despite the Secretary of State’s fine words about the trade union movement at the beginning, does he not realise that what he is saying about what this Tory Government are doing is a continuous Tory vendetta against the trade union movement? He should be thoroughly ashamed that he is bringing in this Bill and, just as in 1927, it will be a future Labour Government who will ensure that this rubbish is destroyed and that trade unions are given back their basic freedoms.
There was a time when Labour used to be the party of working people. We have seen evidence already this afternoon that it has given up on ordinary, hard-working people.
David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con):
Has my right hon. Friend seen the words of Rob Williams from the National Shop Stewards Network? He said:
“The message must be simple—Cameron, we are going to take you down. If this goes into law, we want mass co-ordinated strike action.”
Does that further underline the importance of getting this Bill into place?
What that highlights is that, sadly, there are some trade union leaders who do not care about their members. They care about their own narrow interests and not the interests of their members or other hard-working people. I also wish to highlight the additional requirement for ballots of staff in six key sectors: the health service, the fire service, border security and nuclear decommissioning—because of the obvious risks to public safety and security—and education and transport. A ballot is required because of the massive disproportionate disruption that stoppages in those areas can cause.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab):
What is the appropriate word to describe it when a person who feels that they have been dealt with unjustly seeks to withdraw their labour and is forced to work against their will?
I have already addressed the hon. Gentleman’s concern. This is not a ban on strike action. This is about ensuring that our rules are modern and right and fit for today’s workplace. We have consulted on which occupations within those sectors should be subject to the additional 40% support threshold. The consultation closed last week and we are now reviewing the results. We will publish the Government’s response and details of the scope of the 40% threshold by the time the Bill is in Committee in the other place. As I have said, these measures will not make strikes illegal or impossible. If union leaders can make a genuine and compelling case to their members, they will have no problem securing the votes required. I believe that the vast majority of industrial action is unfortunate and unnecessary, but it is important that workers are able to go on strike. If union members truly want to do so, I will not stand in their way.
Stewart Malcolm McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP):
The right hon. Gentleman talks about having a mandate for this Bill. His party was wholly rejected in Scotland, so why does he not enter discussions with the Scottish Government to devolve trade union law to the Scottish Parliament?
First, as the hon. Gentleman will know, employment law and industrial relations are reserved matters. Secondly, as he is no doubt aware, the Conservative party won a majority at the United Kingdom general election.
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con):
My right hon. Friend was absolutely right to have a consultation on the additional 40% hurdle. He has talked about it in reference to the emergency services and other important services, but does he not agree that there is another issue: if we compare changes in strike action in the public and private sectors since the end of the last century, we see that over that 15-year period the number of strike days in the private sector has halved, but in the public sector the number has doubled?
My hon. Friend, as usual, makes an excellent point. That goes to the heart of the Bill and why we need these changes. It is also important that any industrial action reflects the current will of union members. As things stand, that is not always the case. Union leaders can secure a mandate for industrial action and then keep using it for as long as they please. For example, in October 2013 the NASUWT justified a walk-out by citing a mandate acquired in November 2011, almost two years earlier. That is hardly a constructive approach to industrial relations.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab):
Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that the reason the Opposition object to the Bill is that when people choose to go on strike they get only a tiny bit of strike pay, not their proper pay? They have responsibilities and families to support, so nobody goes on strike just for the hell of it; they do so because they need to.
I think that the hon. Lady will therefore agree with the changes we are proposing today. She is right that strikes should always be a last resort—I think that is the point she is making. If union members wish to take strike action, they will vote for it and meet the proposed thresholds.
Chris Philp (Croydon South) (Con):
The question of mandates was raised a few moments ago. Is the Secretary of State aware that when over 1,000 Londoners were polled by YouGov last month, 53% approved of these proposals and only 26% disapproved? Even among Labour voters the measures were approved of by 40 to 38.
My hon. Friend shows just how much support there is among the general public for these reforms.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con):
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the problems with the unions using historical mandates is that, because time has elapsed, many of the employees who voted for strike action may have retired or moved employment in the meantime?
That is exactly the point I am coming on to.
When old mandates are used, it is not fair on union members. As my hon. Friend said, a two-year-old mandate is unlikely to reflect the latest negotiations and would fail to reflect changes in the workforce. To ensure that any industrial action is based on a current mandate from current members, the Bill provides a four-month validity period after a ballot result is announced.
Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con):
Is my right hon. Friend not showing with this legislation, once again, that the Conservative Government are standing up for people who want to work and against bullies who want to stop them. That is what fundamentally underlies his approach?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting how the Bill protects the rights of working people across the country when they are affected by strike action that has no proper mandate. The Bill provides that voting papers sent to union members and employers will state the details of the trade dispute, exactly what type of industrial action is proposed, and an indication of the time period in which that action will take place. This will ensure that members know exactly what they are voting for or against and allow them to make an informed decision.
One of the valuable roles performed by unions over the years has been to defend workers from abuse, bullying and harassment at the hands of managers. There is no place for such behaviour in the modern workplace, and I applaud anyone who stands up against it. But bosses are not the only culprits. The independent Carr report contained shocking accounts of appalling bullying and harassment directed at non-strikers by trade union members. There were threats that included details of where workers’ children go to school, and abusive text messages warning, “We know where you live.” Photographs of non-strikers were posted online in a bid to shame them. Workers who had failed to support industrial action reported being punished by colleagues who deliberately saddled them with antisocial shift patterns or isolated them in the workplace.
It is not acceptable for managers to harass and abuse trade union members who take lawful industrial action. Nor is it acceptable for strikers to treat those who choose to work in the same way. While such abuses are doubtless the actions of a tiny minority of trade unionists, they should never be allowed to happen without consequences. The Bill makes it clear that such intimidation has no place in the modern workplace.
Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab):
Is it not the case that this is just another instance of the Tory party no longer being on the side of people’s rights? There are no more rights. There is no longer a right to social security, legal aid or access to employment tribunals. The Conservative party is becoming much more authoritarian and Labour Members do not like it. It is no longer the party of rights. It used to have a fine tradition of rights, but that is disappearing.
It is a case of a one nation Government standing up for all working people across the country.
Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con):
Why does the Minister think that since 2010 seven times as many strike days have been lost in the public sector as in the private sector, despite the fact that more people work in the private sector?
My hon. Friend highlights an important point. It reflects the fact that, unfortunately, public sector unions seem to have more leaders who do not want to represent the views of their members and will take strike action without a full and proper mandate. The code of practice on picketing, which is already followed without difficulty by many unions, requires the appointment of a picket supervisor. The Bill will make that a statutory obligation. It does not add any new requirement that is not already in the code. The supervisor must either attend the picket line or be readily contactable by the union and the police and able to attend at short notice, and he or she must wear an armband or other means to identify them in order to ensure that picketing is peaceful and lawful.
In addition, we consulted over the summer on other measures to tackle wider intimidation. The consultation closed last Wednesday and we are considering whether the Bill should contain further provisions. We will set out our views on that consultation in due course.
John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op):
If the Secretary of State is so concerned about being even-handed in how he modernises strike law, why has he ruled out modernising how trade unions communicate and how strike ballots are sent out? Why is he focusing only on more punitive measures?
I assume the hon. Gentleman is referring to e-balloting, but I am concerned about fraud and that the identities of people voting in a secret ballot may be revealed. In fact, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which looked at the use of digital apparatus in elections, also shared those concerns. I do not think it would have been appropriate to suggest such changes.
Let me turn to political funds. The introduction of ballot thresholds will help ensure that unions reflect the will of their whole membership and that the views of every member count. Another way we are going to achieve that is through changes to the way in which political funds are managed.
The Secretary of State discounts e-balloting because of potential fraud. How about considering an amendment to the Bill with regards to balloting in the workplace, where there cannot be any fraud whatsoever? It will be democratised and there will be a huge turnout on every occasion, which is surely what the Secretary of State is seeking to implement.
I have clearly set out my concerns and we propose to make no change to the way in which ballots are carried out.
On political funds, first we will increase transparency on the way in which political funds are spent, helping members to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to contribute. The Bill places a duty on unions to report in greater detail on what annual expenditure over £2,000 is useful, helping members decide whether or not they want to pay into the fund. After all, freedom to choose without having all the facts is no freedom at all.
Secondly, unions will need to obtain the active consent of members to deduct a political levy. At present, members can, in theory, opt out, although many unions do not even tell new members that the political levy exists, let alone about them having to pay for it.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con):
Labour is in hoc to and funded by the unions—[Interruption.] That is why Labour Members are making howls of protest. Is not it a fundamental right that people’s pay packets should not be interfered with, without them knowing exactly where the money and the dues are going? That is what this Bill seeks to achieve.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That money belongs to hard-working people. They should know exactly what is being done with it and that is at the heart of the proposal. In fact, in Northern Ireland, members have had an active choice for almost 90 years and their unions are still perfectly able to operate and to organise. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Prison Officers Association still have more than four fifths of their members choosing to opt in. All we are asking is for a simple tick box on the same membership forms in England, Scotland and Wales.
Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab):
My union, Community, has used the political fund to challenge Governments of all colours and even took the last Labour Government to the European Court and won on behalf of its members. Does the Secretary of State accept that the political fund is not just about putting money into political parties, but about holding the Government of the day to account?
I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with the changes, because they support union members and will introduce more transparency. They will still allow the unions to raise the funds, but they will just have to be more open about how they do so and what they do with them.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab):
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said earlier that when unions and employers work together, results are achieved. That being the case, why does the Secretary of State want to overrule agreements made freely between unions and public sector employees about the appropriate amount of time that should be spent on union duties?
The hon. Gentleman has moved on to an issue that I will cover later in my remarks.
Oliver Dowden (Hertsmere) (Con):
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a simple matter of transparency? If people want to give money to the Labour party as union members, they should choose to do so. Indeed, if they do not actually choose to do so, the danger is that the unions are arguably guilty of mis-selling, because people do not know what they are buying when they join up for membership of a trade union.
My hon. Friend puts it very eloquently. This is an issue of transparency. It is about ensuring that when people, rightly, give money to any political party, they know that they are doing so and do it with their eyes wide open.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving away again. If this is about transparency, what about the hedge funds and big business, which donate fortunes to the Conservative party? Will legislation be put in place covering the need to ask shareholders and the workforce whether such donations can be made? That’s transparency.
I think the hon. Gentleman actually agrees with the rules that apply to businesses. When businesses make a political donation to whatever party, they rightly have to declare it and must be open and transparent. They often need the votes of their shareholders. These rules are absolutely consistent with that. The hon. Gentleman is surely not saying that there should be no transparency here.
The Secretary of State is being very generous with his time. On the point of businesses being open and transparent, should 40% of shareholders have to agree before a business can donate to a political party?
The hon. Lady will know that businesses or individuals have to declare it when they make a donation. It has to be transparent. All businesses have to declare their donations and will often have to get the permission of their shareholders. In public companies, those shareholders will receive a vote. These changes are entirely consistent with that. We are saying that if someone is a union member, they should know that some of their money is going towards political purposes. It should be open and transparent. That is not the case in England, Scotland and Wales. It is the case in Northern Ireland. If it works in Northern Ireland, it can work in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Turning to check-off, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has announced, a proposed amendment to the Bill will seek to end the practice by which union subscriptions are processed through payroll in public sector organisations. The so-called check-off system was created in a time before direct debits existed and serves no purpose in the modern workplace. It has already been abolished across Whitehall. The amendment will extend this modernising step to the rest of the taxpayer-funded workforce.
I respect Britain’s working men and women. I believe that they are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves whether they wish to support their union’s political activity and they are perfectly capable of paying their union subscriptions themselves. To suggest otherwise is to say that Britain’s union members are too lazy to set up a direct debit or too stupid to make a decision about politics. That is patronising in the extreme.
In the past few weeks, the Labour party has shown that it is possible actively to recruit hundreds of thousands of members to a support a cause and that it is possible to get hard-working men and women to hand over their hard-earned money to back an idea that they believe in. Not one of Labour’s new members signed up by mistake because they failed to tick a box. Not one of the registered supporters was required to pay their £3 through their employer’s payroll. Every new recruit to the Labour party made an active decision to participate. If the party born of the unions can achieve that, surely the unions themselves can do the same?
Alan Johnson (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab):
Will the Secretary of State explain why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is pursuing auto-enrolment for contributions to pension funds?
This is an issue about check-off, not auto-enrolment. Several Whitehall Departments have already begun the process to remove check-off, and now we will apply that process to all parts of the public sector.
On facility time, the Government have a moral duty to ensure that taxpayers get maximum value for money out of every penny they provide the Exchequer. With that in mind, it is hard to justify paying a public servant to do a vital job, only for them to spend their day working for another employer. Yet this is exactly what is happening in the public sector today.
Angela Rayner (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab):
Before I came to this place, I was a public sector worker—a home help—and an elected trade union official for a public service, after more than 200,000 members voted for me, and I can tell the Secretary of State that the work I did saved my local authority 10 times what I was paid in facility time. Does he agree that the Bill is anti-business and anti-working practice and that most employers that have trade unions recognise their value?
I wholeheartedly disagree with the hon. Lady. There is nothing wrong with an employee doing union work, but it should be open and transparent.
Then this will make it even more transparent. If the hon. Lady looks at the changes, she should be able to agree with them.
James Heappey (Wells) (Con):
Is it not an outrage that union officials can conduct union business on public time? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the first year of the Government’s controls on facility time in the civil service has seen a saving of £17 million?
I should emphasise that point: we are saving £17 million a year because of the transparency we have introduced into the civil service. It will no doubt have a similar impact on the rest of the public sector.
There are nurses, teachers and other public servants being paid a salary by the taxpayer while working for their union under the banner of facility time. There is no transparency around how much time they spend on union work and no controls in place to ensure that the taxpayer is getting value for money. It is a situation that most ordinary Britons, including many dedicated public servants I have spoken to, find absolutely baffling. That is why civil service Departments are already required to publish information about the use of facility time by their staff. The Bill allows the Government to make regulations extending that to all public sector employers. It will include information about an employer’s spending on trade union duties and activities and about how many of its union representatives spend a specified percentage of their time on their union role. We have already made considerable savings for the taxpayer by requiring Departments to publish this information, as we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey). However, if transparency alone does not lead to further savings, the Bill also grants Ministers the power to set a cap on the time and money spent on facility time.
Ruth Smeeth (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab):
Will the Secretary of State agree with one of his own donors, JCB, which has people in facility full-time to encourage positive industrial relations? If it is good enough for the private sector, surely it is good enough for our public sector.
It is good enough for all sectors. There is nothing wrong with facility time—the Bill is clear about that—but it should be open and transparent, and the current rules do not ensure that.
Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP):
Why have the Government not consulted the devolved Administrations and local authorities across the UK about facility time? They would tell him about its benefits, because these employers and organisations see the benefits of facility time.
I am a bit baffled by the hon. Gentleman’s question because there are three consultations that relate to the Bill. The main consultation is a nine-week consultation and it is open to every stakeholder in the United Kingdom, including those in Scotland.
Finally, the Bill enhances the role of the certification officer—a role that has served workers, unions and employers well over the past 40 years. It equips the certification officer with appropriate new powers for a modern regulator, such as allowing investigations to begin based on information from a variety of sources, without having to wait for specific complaints from union members.
For the first time, the certification officer will have the ability to impose financial penalties on unions that do not comply with statutory requirements—the very requirements that Parliament has deemed necessary. The Bill passes the cost of that regulation on to the unions. That is entirely in line with modern best practice. It is why banks fund the Financial Conduct Authority and why utility regulators are paid for by utility firms.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton South West) (Lab):
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. I understand what he is trying to do with the Bill, but it makes some of us rather uneasy. That is true of the provisions on the certification officer who, hitherto, has been seen by both sides—I speak as someone who was a partner in a law firm with 1,000 employees, so I do know a bit about this—as a neutral arbiter or referee. The Bill politicises the role and, to the trade union side, appears to put the certification officer on one side of the divide, rather than keeping them as a neutral arbiter.
The hon. Gentleman should be assured that if that were the case, we would not have brought these changes forward. The certification officer’s role remains that of a neutral regulator, independent of Government—that will not change. What will change is the transparency, some of the powers that the officer has to carry out their duties and the way the officer is paid for. Just like other regulators, they will be paid for by the people they regulate and be independent.
In conclusion, in June 1966, Prime Minister Harold Wilson stood at this Dispatch Box and called union leaders of the day “politically motivated men who…failed to secure acceptance of their views by the British electorate, but who are…forcing great hardship on the members of the union and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation.”—[Official Report, 20 June 1966; Vol. 730, c. 42-43.]
Since then, successive reforms have helped to modernise the union movement. Now, it is time to take the next step: to embrace the transparency that modern society demands of business and politics; to embrace the democracy that is at the heart of what makes Britain great; and to focus on the needs and demands of union members, rather than the views and ambitions of union leaders.
In our manifesto, we pledged to deliver further union reforms, and at the general election, that manifesto secured the clear acceptance of the British people. This is not about the Government versus the unions or the workers versus the bosses. It is about creating a modern legislative framework for modern industrial relations; about making unions partners in the workplace; and about ensuring that a handful of militants cannot force great hardship on their members and on the public, or endanger the economic welfare of the nation.
I started today by talking about how unions were instrumental in consigning the dark satanic mills to the history books, but the workplace of the 21st century is very different from that of the 18th century. The way in which union members work has changed. Now, it is time for the way in which trade unions work to change too. The Bill will make that change happen, and I commend it to the House.
Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab):
I thank the Secretary of State for his gracious welcome, and especially for the timing of today’s Second Reading debate on this Bill, which he has arranged for maximum convenience. I hope he will continue to be so accommodating as we go forward and I oppose him from the Dispatch Box.
Let me begin by drawing the attention of the House to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests which, in the interests of transparency, I declared earlier than was technically necessary. I was especially pleased to win the nominations of Unison, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, the Communication Workers Union, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and the recommendation of Unite in the recent contest to be deputy leader of the Labour party—hon. Members can see where that got me. As the register shows, my campaign was supported by donations in cash and kind from some of the unions affiliated to the Labour party.
I also want to make a second declaration: I am a lifelong and proud trade unionist. I believe in social partnership at work, and that the right of trade unions to exist and represent their members at work is a key liberty in any democracy. I am dismayed that we have a Government who believe in attacking trade unions, rather than working with them in the spirit of social partnership to improve economic efficiency and productivity in our country.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op):
My hon. Friend will know that in recent years, the average trade unionist has been on strike for one day in 15 years. In sharp contrast, the export of goods last month was down to its lowest level since 2010. Does she agree that the focus should be on collaboration across industry and trade unions to raise productivity and wages, whereas the Bill will get people on the streets and force conflict?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend’s analysis of the effect of the Bill, despite the pantomime that we have just had from the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box.
May I declare that I am a proud trade unionist and was a full-time trade union official for more than 10 years? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill’s real agenda is to stop public sector workers speaking out against this Government’s attacks on their pay and conditions?
It is impossible not to agree with my hon. Friend, and it saddens me beyond words that we are here today dealing with the most significant sustained and partisan attack on 6 million trade union members and their workplace organisations that we have seen in this country in the past 30 years. With the number of days lost to strike action down 90% in the past 20 years, there is no need whatsoever to employ the law in this draconian way.
Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op):
I welcome my hon. Friend to her new position. She says, rightly, that the number of days lost to strikes in the UK is at its lowest for 20 years. It is even more significant than that: we lose fewer days to strike action in the UK today than we did during the second world war. There is no problem here that needs fixing.
Again, I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of my hon. Friend.
Does the hon. Lady have a message for people in London trying to get to work or students trying to get to schools or colleges on the tube? Does she think each one of those strikes was right and necessary, and what is her advice to the travelling public?
My message is that the Mayor should start doing his job and help to respond to the dispute. There is no necessity to employ the law in this draconian way, especially when this country already has the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the trade group for the human resources sector, has criticised the Bill as an “outdated response” to today’s challenges, commenting that the
“Government proposals seem to be targeting yesterday’s problem instead of addressing the reality of modern workplaces”.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP):
Does the hon. Lady not find it amazing that 99% of the time the Conservatives go on about regulation and red tape in business and the workplace? What are they trying to do now but introduce regulation and red tape unseen in Germany, Norway or other major economies of Europe? This is just a symptom of low-pay Britain.
I shall come on to the smothering of trade union administration in what I will call “blue tape” later in my speech. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I hope that he will join us in the Lobby tonight to vote against the Bill.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton South West) (Lab):
I agree with my hon. Friend that trade unions are central to democracy and that we already have some of the most restrictive trade union legislation in the world—and the Bill will make it worse. Does she agree that the Government’s proposals are a threat to the security of our country because they threaten democracy?
I will come on to aspects of that, but it is important that we do not discount the attacks on democracy contained in the Bill, including the sinister attack on freedoms that many of us have taken for granted, perhaps for too long.
Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab):
I declare my interests: I am sponsored by trade unions—the cleanest money in British politics and far cleaner than on the other side of the House. Does my hon. Friend agree that on Sky News yesterday the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) described elements of the Bill as like something out of Franco’s dictatorship?
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab):
I declare an interest: I am a proud member of Unite the union and I have been since the miners’ strike. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is remarkable that 77% of the public believe that trade unions defend important aspects of workers’ rights and that we need them?
It is wise to remember that trade unions defend not only their own members. Over the years, trade unions have created a process that has given us holidays, weekends and reasonable working hours. It is right that the benefits that trade unions bring to our society are recognised and extended to those who are not members of trade unions but happen to be at work. Any attack on those rights that weakens those powers threatens the progress made over many years in democracy at work.
Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab):
My hon. Friend mentioned the CIPD, and it is not only the usual suspects who oppose this Bill—there are some unlikely bedfellows because the Bill goes beyond party politics. As we have heard, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) called it redolent of Franco’s Spain. The Secretary of State pooh-poohed Vince Cable, the former Business Secretary, for calling it “vindictive”. A letter has been signed by 100 academics, mostly from business schools which are not usually seen as hotbeds of radicalism in our country. Will independent-minded Conservatives join us and our new leader in the Lobby tonight to oppose this draconian legislation?
I would like to live in a world in which the Tory party did not have this kind of blood lust against trade unions, but alas we are not there yet.
It is interesting to note that the new shadow Chancellor has told trade unionists: “We will support all demonstrations in Parliament or on the picket line”—against the Bill— “We will be with you at every stage. It is not often you have heard that from a Labour MP but you are hearing it now.” Does the shadow Business Secretary agree with that?
I agree with the right to demonstrate. I thought we were living in a free country. The Bill is draconian, vindictive and counterproductive. It is: “very provocative, highly ideological and has no evidence base at all”.
Those are not my words; they are the words of Vince Cable, the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor as Business Secretary in the previous Government. He has a very revealing insight into the mindset of the Conservative party, the people he was in coalition with for five years, which has concocted the Bill.
“When we were in government, the Tories were constantly pressing for more aggressive trade union legislation of the type we see…They see the trade unions and the Labour party as the enemy. The question then is how do you weaken them? That is their starting point.”
This is the prism through which we have to see the proposals before us today. Forget the blabber from the Secretary of State; this is the prism through which we have to judge these proposals.
Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab):
The Bill comes straight out of the right-wing playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council. As Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker did exactly the same thing in 2011 and put industrial relations back in that state for a generation. Does my hon. Friend not agree?
More than that, I think the slightly shifty looks on the faces of many Government Members demonstrate that they know they have been found out. They have been rumbled.
It is abundantly clear that, whatever protestations we may have to the contrary, Vince Cable’s analysis explains what is really going on with this disgraceful piece of proposed legislation. Perhaps that is why so few people will defend it. Even Government Ministers will not defend it in public, as this tweet from “Murnaghan” revealed on Sunday:
“We asked the Government and the @Conservatives for an interview with any Minister/MP to defend the Trade Union Bill. No one was available.”
They do not want to be questioned about it. Like all authoritarians, they just want do it as quickly as possible and brook no dissent.
The right to be part of a trade union to campaign for protection at work is a fundamental socioeconomic right. It is enshrined in the UN’s universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights. Before I was so rudely interrupted, I was just about to say that the Bill rides roughshod over that right. It threatens the basic options that those at work have to safeguard their pay and conditions by standing together to win improvements. Liberty, Amnesty and the British Institute of Human Rights have all said that the Bill’s purpose is to “undermine the rights of all working people” and amounts to a “major attack on civil liberties in the UK.” That warning should not be dismissed lightly by the Conservative party. Workers’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are all undermined by the Bill. For example, the requirement forcing workers to disclose media comments to the authorities a week in advance or face a fine and the requirement under clause 9 for picket supervisors to register with the police and wear identifying badges are a dangerous attack on basic liberties that would not be tolerated by the Conservative party if they were imposed on any other section of society.
Remember that it is now known that thousands of people in the building trade have had their livelihoods taken away and their lives ruined by illegal employer blacklisting, a scandal that this Government have failed either to pursue or remedy. The Bill has been criticised for being OTT, with parts of it resembling the dictatorship of General Franco. Those are not my words, either, but the words of that noted Marxist agitator, the Conservative right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis).
That sinister intent needs to be added to other attempts by the Government to curb dissent in our country today. They have restricted access to justice by imposing fees to access the courts, which are causing the innocent to plead guilty. They want to scrap the Human Rights Act, which safeguards our basic freedoms. Their commitment to transparency in Government is in tatters with their plans to limit freedom of information powers. They have slashed legal aid and introduced employment tribunal fees, which deny women the chance to sue for equal pay or defend themselves against sexual harassment. They have limited the scope for judicial review and used their gagging law to bully charities into silence at the election, and now they are trying to silence the trade union voice through a tax on the existence of political funds, which finance general non-party political campaigning as well as the Labour party.
This is another gagging Bill, and those of us who care for the health of our democracy and civil society are united in opposing it. Clauses 2 and 3 are deliberately designed to undermine the bargaining power of trade unions by requiring minimum turnouts, thresholds and support before a strike ballot is valid. The new proposals demand a mandate for unions that breaks the democratic conventions of our society by counting votes not cast as essentially no votes.
More than half of the Cabinet would not have met that arbitrary threshold had it applied to their election to this House in May. Why do the Government have different standards for democracy and trade unions than anywhere else in our society? Clause 3 ensures that the 40% level of support restriction will apply to a much bigger list of sectors than the internationally recognised definition of “essential services” and, ominously, allows sectors to be added by secondary legislation that is as yet unpublished. From listening to the Secretary of State, it appears that the Government do not intend to publish it until the Bill is in the Lords.
If the Government are so worried about participation in ballots, why do they not allow e-balloting and secure workplace balloting, which are used routinely by many organisations? Clauses 4 to 6 might more usefully be described as the clauses that smother unions in “blue tape” and the hypocrisy of the Business Secretary in this respect is staggering. In July, he launched his drive to cut red tape, yet when it comes to unions he is increasing the powers of the certification officer and deliberately placing additional information and reporting burdens on unions. Not content with doing that, the Government, through clauses 12 and 13, are reducing the ability of trade union officials to do their jobs with the introduction of new powers to restrict facility time.
It is not hard to come to the conclusion that these proposals have been written to be as unworkable and difficult to comply with as possible. They also create many more opportunities for ballots to be challenged by employers for minor technical reasons. Again, it is clear that the increased risk of employer challenge is an integral part of the Government’s intentions.
Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab):
Does my hon. Friend recall that throughout the 1980s the working people of this country were lectured about giving managers the right to manage? Management in this country has agreed with trade unions at a local level who should have facility time and what they should do with it. Why should the Government have to intervene to destroy that partnership, which has worked for the benefit of all concerned?
Rather like Don Quixote, they are tilting at windmills, and legislating for an absurd caricature of the reality of industrial relations up and down the country, for partisan purposes. That is why we oppose the Bill. Clauses 7 and 8 extend the notice requirements for any industrial actions and restrict the effect of any ballot for strike action to four months. These clauses are designed to narrow the effectiveness of any industrial action, even if it has reached the much higher requirements of turnout and support required for clauses 2 and 3. There is no sign of any evidence that could justify these changes and no sign of a clamour for employers to change the existing system. Indeed, these changes may intensify industrial dispute during the four-month period, and make things worse.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind):
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me—unlike the Secretary of State—to intervene. Everyone who heard the Secretary of State’s contribution will know that he cited the example of Northern Ireland, stating that what was good enough for Northern Ireland was good enough for the rest of the country. In particular regard to the political fund, trade union members in Northern Ireland have had to opt in, and that has been the case for over 60 years. Will the hon. Lady clarify what percentage of trade union members in Northern Ireland have opted in to the political fund? The answer to the question—I am sure it must have slipped her mind, as she always does her homework before contributing to debates—is 39%. Let me add that it could be to do with the fact that the Labour party never fielded candidates in Northern Ireland. Perhaps under the new leadership, the party might think of rivalling its buddies in Sinn Féin.
We will have to have a chat about whether the Labour party should organise in Northern Ireland. It is a long-standing issue within our party. I would be more than happy to talk to the hon. Lady about that, but I suspect Madam Deputy Speaker would stop me from doing so over the Dispatch Box. We all know that this Government—barely with a majority—increasingly behave in a grossly partisan way, whether it is through individual electoral registration designed to disenfranchise voters, by introducing English votes for English laws, or now by making changes to party funding to try to hobble the main Opposition.
The motivation behind this Bill has nothing to do with the things that the hon. Lady has just mentioned; it is to do with protecting and helping ordinary hard-working people to go about their day-to-day lives and their work unimpeded by strike action, which sometimes has turnouts as low as 16%. It is reasonable to protect them, and I ask the hon. Lady to support that
Disillusion has set in very quickly, I am afraid, with the hon. Gentleman. All I can say is that I am a long-standing member of a trade union, so I know many trade unionists, and I know that very few of them would contemplate being silly enough to have industrial action with very low turnouts and very little support, because that simply does not work.
The Prime Minister used to say he wanted to reform party funding and would limit donations from all sources. Now, however, instead of addressing the big money in politics—and the big issues that are causing disillusionment from politics generally—with millionaire hedge-fund donors being treated to lunches and dinners with the Cabinet, this Government are, outrageously, focusing on curbing only trade union donations. There is an important issue about big money in politics, but it needs to be dealt with on a cross-party basis to change our political system fairly, and not just with the partisan interests of the Tory party in mind.
As the Regulatory Policy Committee has noted, these proposals for changes are rushed, and have had nowhere near the level of consultation that they deserve. The Committee has described the impact assessment as “not fit for purpose”. There are serious questions about whether this Bill is compatible with the international legal obligations of the United Kingdom, as a member of the International Labour Organisation. The ILO has already criticised the UK on a number of occasions for its constraints on the right to strike, and the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has called for more, not less, trade union freedom in Britain.
Given the serious questions about its effect on fundamental rights, the Bill may be open to legal challenge on a number of fronts, including its impact on the devolution settlements, because it covers areas such as health and education that are clearly devolved. The Welsh Government, who have a substantially better record of working constructively with trade unions than this Administration, have objected to the proposals in strong terms, and are considering whether a legislative consent motion might be appropriate.
The Bill is a divisive piece of legislation which undermines the basic protections that trade unions provide for people at work. This is a partisan attack to undermine those unions, and the Labour party, but it will have substantial implications for more than 6 million workers by undermining unions’ ability to stop harassment in the workplace and ensure that the basic health and safety of workers is maintained. The Government are pushing through an agenda of attacking civil society, intimidating charities, threatening basic civil liberties, and undermining access to justice. These draconian measures must be stopped, and I urge the House to deny the Bill a Second Reading.
The Second Reading was carried by 317 votes to 284. The 284 No votes included 215 Labour (of 232), 54 SNP (of 56), 5 Liberal Democrat (of 8), 3 Democratic Unionist Party (of 8), 3 SDLP (of 3), 3 Plaid Cymru (of 3), and 1 Green (of 1). The two Ulster Unionist Party MPs did not vote. Only Lady Hermon, Northern Ireland Independent MP, of the non-Government Parties, voted for the Bill. Oddly, Jeffrey M. Donaldson of the DUP is recorded as voting both for and against the Bill. The Bill will go into the Committee Stage until 27 October.