Lord Balfe speaks in the House of Lords trade union bill committee debate.
Petty vindictiveness: Conservative peers condemn #TUbill ban on payroll collection of union subs
Today saw the last day of the trade union bill’s committee debate in the Lords, and one of the main issues up for debate was the Government’s plans to end the check-off system of collecting union subscriptions directly from members’ salaries in the public sector
Conservative peer Lord Balfe spoke forcefully against the idea, speaking from personal experience as a former union rep who had been responsible for collecting union subscriptions before check-off was introduced to his branch in partnership between employer and union in the 1960s.
He was concerned this could see many people who need the support of trade unions just drop out of the system, and make them less representative:
“Obviously some people would drop out, who would drop out? Probably the people at the margins. Ironically, of course, probably the people least likely to vote for a strike, and most likely not to return their ballot, so you could say that maybe the Government is doing this in order to promote strike action, because it will make it actually easier to get a strike because the very members who will disappear will be those who have various difficulties …
This is going to affect the poorest in society. This is not compassionate conservatism. This is going to affect the lollipop lady, the swimming bath attendant, the person at the bottom of the trade union pile, the person for whom unions above all were set up to help. It does nothing whatever to improve union relations. This is one area where I think if there is a division I will be in the lobby against my own party”
The issue of check-off has been a flashpoint for all sides of the House at second reading as well, with many feeling the measure was opposed to the principles of localism, by overriding agreements made by local public sector employers from central government. The feeling was pretty clear that this was a partisan attack on trade unions’ funding and operation. Lord Balfe seemed to echo that today in his speech as well:
“I haven’t had a single letter from an employers association, or from a council, saying they support this, not one, not even a Conservative council. I did speak to one Conservative council leader and asked him what he thought, and his response was: ‘Oh, anything that makes life difficult for the unions I’m in favour of.'”
Another Conservative peer, former minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (a self-described “strong Thatcherite”) said that ministers were going “far too far” in seeking to ban check-off. He compared it to a Labour government stopping employers from deducting private health insurance from salaries, asking:
“What business is it of the Government or the state to decide what arrangements are made between free trade union movements and employers?”
His comments were echoed by other Conservative peers too. Lord Cormack said:
“If the Conservative party stands for anything it stands for choice – and this is just an unnecessary, meddlesome, bureaucratic abolition of choice. It is not worthy of the Conservative party”.
He accused ministers of “petty vindictiveness and spitefulness”. Lord Deben (former minister John Gummer), said:
“I do not think this is a proper way to behave. We ought to make it easy and simple for people to belong to a trade union.”
Labour and Liberal Democrat peers also joined the condemnation of the proposals, to the discomfort of the bill’s Lords lead, Baroness Neville-Rolfe. It’s getting clearer that she and her government colleagues are facing an increasingly difficult battle to pass this extremely divisive part of an already very divisive bill. They inadvertently signalled as much already in the ministerial letter leaked a fortnight back, revealing concessions they feared they might be forced into offering to head off more serious damage to the bill – including abandoning the check-off ban in Scotland.
Amendments weren’t voted on today, but this issue will be one to watch closely when the bill returns for Lords report stage in three weeks’ time.