The government is dodging proper scrutiny of the Trade Union Bill. Don’t be like #TUbill
This week saw the long overdue publication of the government’s impact assessment of the Trade Union Bill, which proposed £37m of new red tape for unions. The assessment, which is the government’s best guess at how much the the unfair, undemocratic and unnecessary Bill would cost, is the latest evidence of Ministers’ rushed approach to the legislation.
These costs include an extra £12m over the next five years for unions to cover direct debit fees for members’ monthly payments, if rights to payroll deductions are taken away as proposed under the Bill. The government also estimates unions will have to pay £2m annually to cover the costs of the enhanced role of the union regulator (the Certification Officer), who as Baroness Donaghy recently remarked “will not only become a highly political, sectarian and controversial organisation but will raise money from its own statutory activities. That is a conflict of interest.” More troubling still, the TUC reckons the government is underestimating some of the costs unions will face as its calculations are based on crude assumptions of the union resource required to meet them – but more on that in a moment.
The Bill’s parliamentary journey kicked off 5 months ago, with 3 consultations running over the summer holidays lasting just 6 weeks. This was plainly an inadequate amount of time for trade unions, members and employers to fully respond to the proposals put forward by the government.
The government’s own consultation principles state that responses must be made within 12 weeks – which meant these should have been published in early December 2015. Christmas came and went, New Year resolutions were already broken and members of the public were two thirds of the way through dry January before the government at last responded to its consultation on ballot thresholds in important public services. All the while not a peep has come from Ministers on the consultation response to hiring agency staff during strike action. These are significant proposals, and the government’s failure to respond even according to their own principles means proper scrutiny in parliament is an impossibility. This only adds to concerns shared by many unions and employers that the Bill is undemocratic.
Meanwhile, the government did get around to publishing an equality impact assessment of the Bill back in September. The below extracts demonstrate the rushed approach Ministers have taken:
“certain protected groups use important public services more frequently. [We may need to add more data here].”
“Where certain protected groups use particular important services more frequently than average, they will disproportionately benefit from a reduction in strike action in this service. [We may need to add some statistics here]”
On the Impact Assessment, Baroness Smith of Basildon noted in last week’s Lords Second Reading of the Bill that according to the Cabinet Manual it:
“’must be made available alongside Bills published in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny or introduced to Parliament, with 80 copies sent to the Vote Office … and 10 to the Lords Printed Paper Office’. We do not need 10: we will settle for one but we would like it as soon as possible.”
The Baroness wasn’t the only one who wanted a copy. And now, she probably feels like a teacher let down by one of their pupils. You know the type – the one who says their homework will be late, insists it’ll be great quality when it’s finally submitted, and ends up handing in a bit of a damp squib. (What’s worse, the pupil’s last bit of homework already got an F).
Impact assessments are a vital part of the legislative scrutiny process. The clue is in the name: parliamentarians need to understand what might happen, and how much it will cost, if they vote in favour of a Bill. But some of its claims are deeply concerning:
On proposals for trade union members to opt-in (in writing) to the political fund:
(p. 9) “Description and scale of key monetised benefits by ‘main affected groups’: There are no monetised benefits”.
Except to opposing political parties?
(p.11) “The key assumption in this analysis concerns the current usage of check off, which is then used to estimate administrative savings. This is made using anecdotal evidence from central government departments, combined with research by the Taxpayers’ Alliance”.
At least anecdotal evidence was combined with that of the impartial experts from the TPA.
The assessment also makes clear just how questionable the government’s justifications about their policy proposals are, for example stating that:
p.1 [Removing check-off] “will remove the administrative burden and legal burden from public sector employers, and ensure that trade unions have a direct subscription relationship with their members, like any other modern members’ organisation”.
Why are trade unions so different to other membership organisations? In its 2011 White Paper update, the government said payroll giving (a charity donation facility) was about “rebuilding the trust and social capital that underpins our prosperity and wellbeing”. Where, then, is the sense in undermining collective agreements on check off and damaging relations between public sector employers and trade unions?
What is perhaps more concerning is the methodology used in some places to calculate the financial impact on unions. It indicates that the government is underestimating the true impacts of the reforms on unions. For example, the Assessment says it will take 5 senior union officials around 8 hours to familiarise themselves with the Bill’s proposed legislative changes, and 11 hours specifically for political funds reform. We think that should the Bill receive Royal Assent it will take far more than the time of 5 senior officials to digest and respond to the proposals. It also bases its estimate of over £1m in administrative costs (paid as a one off fee and an again every 5 years) for political fund opt-in forms on union administrators spending 30 seconds printing an envelope, and a further 30 seconds to “handle each returned envelope with a written notice”. This assumption seems more than a little optimistic.
We’re still waiting on the government’s next round of homework: the impact of the 40% strike ballot thresholds, as well as the consultation response on agency workers. A brief reference was made to the 40% threshold issue in the Impact Assessment (p. 29), but these were only “initial calculations”.
Then there’s the impact assessment of the secondary regulation, which will judge the levy unions would have to pay to its reformed regulator.
All in all, failure of Ministers to meet procedural standards means that the Lords will not receive adequate information to inform proper scrutiny. This simply isn’t good enough.