Lord Balfe speaks on check off arrangements in tonight's House of Lords Trade Union Bill report stage debate.
Trade Union Bill takes a battering in the Lords: What’s next in #TUbill campaign?
We’re nearing the end of the parliamentary process of the controversial Trade Union Bill. It has been a bruising experience for the government, lasting longer than they had hoped, and with a successions of embarrassments, defeats and concessions along the way. Much is still up for grabs, but as things stand at the end of the Lords process, the bill is a much weakened force.
The changes started with a number of climb-downs by the government during the bill’s Commons progress.
First to go was much of the detail on restrictions of pickets and protests. Measures such as making all pickets wear an armband and give their personal details to police and anyone who asked would have had a severe chilling effect on people’s willingness to exercise their right to protest. The ideas initially floated also included making unions give the employer very detailed campaign plans, even down to the level of what social media communications would be included, 14 days in advance of a picket – with fines for breaching the plan.
That was so draconian (besides being obviously unworkable) that it caused an outcry from liberally minded Conservatives. David Davis MP famously drew comparisons with the methods of former Spanish dictator General Franco. We’re still opposed to reporting duties that could give activists’ names to the police – especially worrying when the full scale of state involvement in blacklisting construction workers still has not been revealed – but this was a major scaling back of the bill’s scope to restrict union protest.
The next change was around public employers collecting union subs from payroll (check-off). After determined questioning from Conservative MP Jeremy Lefroy at report stage, Minister Nick Boles conceded that unions should have 12 months notice of changes, not just 3 months. The principle still stands that this is an unnecessary restriction on local employers by a government supposedly committed to localism, but the increased notice offered unions time to update their membership systems and avoid losing large numbers of members when check-off arrangements suddenly finished (Which a cynic might suggest was the main reason for the government’s interest in pursuing this).
And then the government announced that they would no longer seek to include ancillary workers in the double strike thresholds they are imposing on much of the public sector. Many public service workers will still be affected, but without this concession the restrictions would also have hit huge numbers of outsourced workers in the private sector, damaging their ability to do anything about an erosion of their working conditions by unscrupulous private providers. With the current trend towards privatisation, this could have been hugely damaging for the people who support our essential public services.
And then we came to the House of Lords, where the government could no longer count on a whipped majority of votes to push the bill through. Many cross-bench, and some Tory Peers spoke out against the bill’s partisan nature, and the corners the government had cut to push the bill through – such as not releasing consultation evidence or providing shoddy impact assessments. Peers pride themselves on detailed scrutiny of legislation, and much of this bill simply failed to stand up to their questioning.
In all, Peers added 3 amendments to the government’s concessions to date, with large majority votes including many Conservatives as well as Peers of all parties and none.
Firstly they proposed an independent review into unions using online voting for strike ballots, and a government plan to implement the findings. This is important as unions are currently restricted to postal-only voting, which is known to depress turnout, at a time when the government are seeking to bring in minimum turnouts. The government’s opposition to online voting on security grounds has looked increasingly contrived as more and more organisations (including the Conservative party themselves) have adopted the process.
Second was an amendment to strike out the government’s reserve power under the bill to cap the amount of time off that any public employer agrees to give union reps to represent members or conduct duties like safety inspections (known as facility time). The bill as amended would still require public employers to account for this time, but not for central government to impose a cap on agreements between local public bodies and their unions.
Changes to union political funds were particularly controversial, with Lib Dem Peers in particular aggrieved that the Conservatives would abandon the established cross party consensus to sort out the issue of political funding for all parties together, with this change that could impact the Labour party so severely. In an unusual move, Peers voted to set up a special scrutiny committee and after taking evidence from a wide range of organisations amended the bill to remove regular automatic opt-outs for anyone paying into political funds, to allow online methods of opt-in rather than just post, and to limit other changes in process to new members only.
And more concessions
Today we saw some even more dramatic developments, with the government heading off potential defeats on new amendments with further concessions.
Lords Balfe, Kerslake and Cormack were due to bring an amendment, completely overturning the bill’s ban on check off in cases where the union agreed to pay the employer’s payment processing costs (as many unions currently do). The minister, Lord Bridges, accepted the principle and said the government agreed to add their own amendment.
This is a very big deal. It would have cost unions dearly in adjustment costs and could have seen many people fall through the gaps in the move to the new system – something Lord Balfe correctly identified in saying it was a measure that would hit low income workers in unions like UNISON the hardest, cutting them off from the services and protection of a union.
In response to another amendment, we also saw government promises on the changes in the role of the union regulatory body. Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe conceded further safeguards on the appointment and activities of the Certification Officer – that they will be free from ministerial direction and appointed by the OCPA, and that the levy on unions will only pay for part of the costs of the CO, excluding the more expensive costs of any external investigators.
A week, as we all know, is a long time in politics.
Next Monday 25 April Peers will debate the third reading of the bill which takes into account the changes made at report stage and gives the government a chance to come back with further changes to deal with concerns raised throughout the Lords’ stages.
And then on Wednesday 27 April MPs will convene for the “ping-pong” stages, where the government defeats from the Lords are looked at again and the government decides whether to accept the Lords’ changes or push on and force the original proposals through. If they reject the Lords’ changes, the Lords have another chance to vote and urge the government to think again. At this stage timing is critical – the government has to get the bill passed before the Queen’s Speech on 18 May or it will fall in its entirety.
At the TUC, we remain opposed to the bill, even as amended by the government and Lords. It’s unnecessary, anti-democratic, and partisan – aimed in practice at eroding union membership in the public sector and reducing all workers’ abilities to do anything about unfair treatment at work. The government have been battered at every turn on this bad bill, and need to call it a day now.
What’s left in the bill after the Peers’ changes is very far from where the government hoped to be at this stage. That’s testament to the hundreds of thousands of union members and supporters who have lobbied, written, marched and spread the word since the bill was introduced back in September.
We know from our huge lobby of Parliament last November that many Conservative MPs are concerned about this bill, and will support the amendments made by their colleagues in the House of Lords. Can you help by writing to your own MP now? We need to persuade Conservative MPs that their constituents are watching, and that they should vote to accept the sensible and proportionate amendments from the Lords (which still allow the government’s stated manifesto commitments, of measures to restrict strike ballots to full majority support and to ensure people giving to union political funds are fully aware of it).
And we need to make sure we can still count on all opposition MPs as strongly as we were able to during the Commons stages.