Jon Mendelsohn offers a state of play analysis on the Trade Union Bill following the Lords committee stage
“I am very proud to have been a trade unionist, and I take this Trade Union Bill rather personally”: the words of my colleague Rita Donaghy; and I agree, this Bill is something which everyone should take personally. Even though I’ve never been a trade union member, I still recognise the benefits of maintaining good employee relations and encouraging social mobility.
I also believe that Peers, on our benches and elsewhere in the Lords, have a duty to protect our democracy from Ministers attempts to muzzle opposition. The current government’s fear of scrutiny and challenge has become a common theme within the parliamentary process, as the focus has moved from silencing charities to suffocating trade unions and political opponents alike.
The level of debate in the Lords on the Trade Union Bill has been necessarily robust in the face of ministerial attacks. Securing a special Select Committee to look specifically at the impact of the political funding clauses of the Bill was just one of many steps we’ve taken to unmask the government’s true intentions.
At a time when people unlock phones with their fingerprint, access everything from direct debits to dates with a simple side swipe on a screen, insisting that the most important communication between trade unions and their members must be done by post, is both outdated and undemocratic. E-balloting was good enough for the Conservative’s London Mayoral candidate selection, so why is this Bill looking to disallow it for union members? If Ministers really wanted to improve engagement, it would have included the carrot of e-balloting alongside the stick of increased thresholds. Or as Margaret Prosser put it, “Increasingly, it looks as though it is an exercise in how to ban strikes without actually banning them”.
If the Bill truly wanted clarity on what is being used to fund party political activities, the government should also examine individual high value donors along with the millions of pounds pumped into Tory coffers from anonymous organisations and clubs. Indeed, just before Peers’ began scrutinising the plans, Ray Collins raised the still unanswered question as to why “No balancing measure is being taken to cap the donations of the Conservative party.” The Select Committee recommendations, aka ‘the Burns Report’ (named after the Crossbencher Peer who chaired it), show there is no longer any doubt that the Bill impacts negatively on Labour’s funding and by extension poses a real threat to democratic debate in the UK.
Then there’s 'check-off’ – the system whereby trade union subs are deducted from pay roll, and which especially benefit low-paid part-time women. Flying in the face of the government’s oft-stated commitments to localism and choice, Ministers now want a blanket ban for the public sector while allowing the system to be used elsewhere. And they are also arbitrarily singling out payments to trade unions, suggesting no provisions for pay-roll donations to charities and other bodies. As Margaret Wheeler told the Lords, this has the huge potential to impact on employer/employee relations, “as current agreements and arrangements are thrown up in the air and abandoned”.
We also have an attempt to erode facility time for trade union reps – a direct attack on what Dianne Hayter rightly describes as “the backbone of trade unionism”; and an aspect of the Bill that should concern any good manager. Decent facility time can provide positive relationships between the workforce and employers, but importantly it allows for learning reps to do their job in supporting staff development and promote access to learning. This is vital to the social mobility of millions of union members and shouldn’t be an area where central government dictates how employers interact with their own staff.
During the Committee stage of the Bill, it became clear that the government doesn’t have a case for many of the provisions; and it was also highlighted how poorly the BIS has carried out consultations and formulated impact assessments. Consequently, we’ll now be seeking to use the upcoming Report stage to push Ministers on issues such as e-balloting, the ‘opt-in’ process, check off and facility time.
When John Monks noted that it wasn’t just our side pressing the government and “there remains widespread concern about the nature of what is being proposed,” he spoke about the magnitude of the changes that revealed the true nature of the Bill for what it is: an attempt to silence opposition wearing the worn out disguise of openness and transparency. It is time the Cameron government found a new disguise, because time and time again, the vindictive truth has been revealed by the strong, probing opposition of the Labour team working on the Bill.
Lord Jon Mendelsohn in a Shadow BIS Minister and is leading for Labour Lords on the Trade Union Bill
Published 3rd March 2016