Dealer's choice

Jon_Mendelsohn.jpgJon Mendelsohn on the main issues for debate at next week’s final day of Lords Report on the Trade Union Bill

Picking up where we left off before Easter, Peers turn our attention again next week to the Trade Union Bill with the second and final day of Lords Report focused on issues relating to the Certification Officer (CO) and ‘check-off’, or payroll deduction as it’s also known.

The first test for any legislation should be that it seeks to address a specific problem. In the case of the CO, there have been no calls from anyone – not Trade Union members, not employers, not even the current CO himself – for any changes to the powers of the post. Not a single complaint has been made from union members using the existing system. And Ministers have failed to show genuine consumer detriment with an overwhelming majority of trade unions.

The government’s plans to extend the CO’s remit have been widely criticised, with the EHRC concluding that the proposed investigatory and enforcement powers could both undermine its current impartiality and fail to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. It is in fact an unnecessary attack on the freedom of association for millions of union members that will create a negative impact on employer/employee relations, as well as upon our wider democracy.

The plans are also in stark contrast to the government’s much promised challenge on red tape and a bonfire of the quangos. The Bill’s Impact Assessment gives a rather conservative estimate that costs will increase by 135% to at least £1.9m – without any limits on the future costs. Ministers argue that this is a fairer deal for taxpayers, whilst ignoring that it will shift a ballooning financial burden onto 6.5 million union members.

Worst of all, these changes were dreamt up without any prior consultation with the CO. They also fail to have any perspective – the massive increase in the cost is all for just 9p a week per member.

When it comes to check-off, the trade unions are again being singled out. Deductions at payroll are common, allowing for a fair, transparent and reliable way for employees to manage their money. They are used for all manner of things, from travel and childcare to pensions and student loans. Throughout the passage of this Bill, Ministers have failed to justify why union membership fees should not use this method of payment.

Changing how union membership is paid will of course, lead to major upheavals to trade unions themselves. But given the plans – if passed – will have to take place within three months, it is virtually impossible.

Concern that people would be put off or left out of the rush to transfer to direct debits was grossly underestimated in the Impact Assessment, as well as the cost of such a drastic move – which the government suggested would be just £150,000 per union. That figure is pie in the sky. Moving millions of people from one system to another would cost substantially more in staff time, letters and forms.

Then there is the issue of union members unable to set up direct debits, with young workers likely to find it difficult as not all high street banks offer such facilities to the under 18s. The biggest impact however, will undoubtedly fall on the low paid. Many people will have savings accounts that do not allow for direct debits. And there will be an untold number who fail to sign up fearing bounced payments and the knock on impact to their personal credit ratings.

While Ministers have belatedly tabled amendments that seek to countering the unintended consequences of these clauses, it barely cracks the tip of the iceberg. So, what is being presented to the unions continues to be more bureaucracy and an endless financial bill, allowing the CO to run up an expensive tab and leaving it for the unions to settle. This is not a deal you or I would enter into willingly; rather, one that all trade unions and employers’ associations should be protected against.

Lord Jon Mendelsohn is Shadow BIS Minister in the House of Lords

Published 14th April 2016

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