John Monks looks ahead to Lords Committee stage debates on the Trade Union Bill
Ministers have pledged to save business £10bn in the next five years by cutting back on red tape. They are applying the exact opposite rule elsewhere, and a Bill currently going through Parliament will add a huge chunk of regulation to the already over-burdened trade unions. The government’s own Impact Assessment acknowledges a cost of £1.41 million over the first five years. Clearly an underestimation, as Ministers don’t seem to have a clue about the ongoing financial hit on unions of many of the measures in the Bill.
Labour Peers have tabled a broad range of amendments for debate during the Bill’s Committee stage, which starts on Monday (8 February). Our scrutiny and probing will pick apart the claims made in the impact assessment.
But it isn’t just our side pressing the government. Others from across the House helped secure the Select Committee to look more closely at the impact of Clauses 10 and 11 of the Bill on party funding. There remains widespread concern about the nature of what is being proposed, and I'm confident further changes are possible.
There are three other key areas where we may be able to make progress.
Firstly, on industrial action, where the government’s arguments against allowing electronic and workplace balloting are feeble. They repeatedly say they're not convinced that such ballots could be done securely – despite not long ago using electronic voting to choose their candidate for London mayor.
Labour’s amendment ensures that there will be an independent scrutineer for such ballots, just as there is currently for postal ballots. The Central Arbitration Committee will then serve as a point of advice for both parties, to ensure the process is secure.
Second, the government claims that the ‘check off’ system in the public sector, whereby trade union subscriptions can be deducted from the payroll for each member, is costing taxpayers and is not ‘transparent’.
In many cases, unions pay the employer to run the system and it costs the taxpayer nothing. As the TUC points out, the benefits of check off to employment relations are considerable. They represent an agreement between a union and an employer that works well for both. Why interfere, particularly given the government’s supposed attraction to localism?
Amendments are being tabled so that where there is agreement and the union is paying the employer to run a check off system, this may continue. If transparency so concerns the government, they should accept our amendments to give employers a choice in the matter.
Third, the government is giving itself new powers to control the amount of paid time off that trade union representatives get to carry out their union duties. Duties that include health and safety risk assessments, representing members in trouble at work, and providing learning opportunities for workers.
All such activities are constructive and highly valued by employers, and this part of the Bill seems to have no support anywhere. In fact, it smacks of a personal vendetta being carried out by former Ministers who have previously taken exception to union activities in some government departments. Bearing a grudge is no way to make public policy.
I hope Ministers will listen to the well-evidenced arguments that will be made from around the Lords during the Committee stage. And in the process of doing so, re-consider their position on these aspects of the Bill, along with heeding the recommendations of the Select Committee on Clauses 10 and 11.
Lord John Monks is a Labour Peer and a former General Secretary of the TUC
Published 7th February 2016