Taking liberties

John_Monks_cr.jpgJohn Monks on the motives behind the Trade Union Bill, which has its Lords Second Reading on 11 January

For every £1 spent on workplace training delivered by trade unions, the economy gets a return of £9.15. According to the Business Department, 77% of unionised workplaces have a policy on flexible working arrangements, compared with 43% of non-unionised. The annual Labour Force Survey meanwhile, shows that strikes are at an all-time low, with far fewer days lost to industrial action than to illness. Throw in widespread condemnation of the practices of Sport Direct and other over-mighty employers, and you have to wonder why the government wants to prioritise weakening trade unions, reducing the voice of working people and attacking Labour’s funding base.

The Bill proposes to introduce new thresholds for ballots on industrial action. All trade unions would need to achieve a turnout of over 50% for the ballot to be legally compliant. But for ‘important’ public services, such as schools, transport and the NHS, this would also need to deliver a 40% ‘yes’ vote. Ministers say the changes would improve democracy. Yet they have bizarrely refused to agree to introduce electronic or workplace balloting, despite evidence of its positive effect on turnout.

The government is also seeking to bring in intrusive requirements for those engaged in picketing, including wearing armbands and giving contact details to the police. The latter have no problems with the current law, and Liberty has described the proposals as ‘a major attack on civil liberties in the UK’. Such moves are entirely unwarranted. No incidents of unruly or unlawful behaviour have occurred on picket lines since the 1980s. If there were to be, existing public order law could be used.

There are also plans to prevent employers from deducting union subscriptions at source via their payroll, something known as ‘check off’. This is short-sighted, given that employers in all sectors value the current process, which in some cases can generate them a profit. Many have expressed anger over ministerial interference in their right to manage their own employment relations. Ministers also want to interfere with facility time agreements, where paid and unpaid time off is given to union representatives who are being trained to deal with matters that could cause wider problems, for example workplace safety.

At the heart of the proposals, is a fundamental challenge to how unions contribute to political funds – requiring members to opt in rather than opt out as is currently the case. All the evidence shows that opt in would reduce subscriptions and it is therefore a naked, partisan attack on Labour Party funding. Estimates range but the many millions of pounds lost each year will put the Party at a significant disadvantage at election time. Naturally, there is no commensurate proposal to look at how hedge funds and the like contribute to Conservatives coffers. Nor any attempt to ask company shareholders to opt in or out to similar donations.

The final part of the Bill hugely increases the powers of the trade union regulator, the Certification Officer (CO). There is no evidence that there are new problems that the CO can’t deal with under existing legislation. Ministers are expressly concerned about the ‘burden’ of red tape on business but care little about the impact of excessive regulation on unions.

All in all, this Bill is an attack on civil liberties, flouting international standards and singling out unions for draconian intervention. It has little real support from employers, has been rushed through without proper consultation and should never have seen the light of day. Labour Peers will do what they can to counter the worst of it, and work with others across the Lords to make the government see sense. We can only but hope.

Lord John Monks is a backbench Labour Peer and a former General Secretary of the TUC

Published 29th December 2015

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