28 April 2016
The Trade Union Bill was returned to the House of Commons yesterday, where MPs voted on Conservative amendments to the Bill, which had been softened by the Lords.
The Tories took issue with two Lords amendments: the roll-out of e-balloting for trade unions and the removal of reserve powers for the Secretary to put a cap on facility time in the public sector.
Business Minister Nick Boles told the House of Commons the government was not opposed in principle to the idea of e-balloting but that it was unable to commit to rolling it out.
The Lords had amended the Trade Union Bill to say the government must commission an independent review of e-balloting and then use this review to present a strategy for roll-out to both Houses.
Boles stated that the government would commit to the review but not to the roll-out, arguing that it was not possible to guarantee the introduction of e-balloting before the report on its safety had been published, as this could put the government in the position of implementing a system that was found to be unsafe.
Instead, he amended the Bill to say that the government would only lay its response to the review in front of both Houses.
Importantly, this means there is no written commitment in the Trade Union Bill for the government to introduce e-balloting, even if the review finds it to be safe, which raises the risk that the government will not follow through.
Boles gave his verbal guarantee to the Commons that the government will roll-out e-balloting for trade unions if the review finds such an action to be safe, and the opposition promised to hold the Tories to this promise when the time comes.
Challenged as to why e-balloting requires such caution in the labour movement but not the Conservative Party – where it is used to elect the Tory candidate for the London Mayoral elections – Boles said trade union ballots must be held to a “higher standard” than those held within the Tory Party.
The Tory amendment was voted in by 312 to 260.
Facility Time Cap
The Lords had removed Clause 13 from the Trade Union Bill, which allowed for the government to place a cap on facility time for public sector employers if this was deemed by the Secretary to be necessary.
In the Commons, the government presented an amendment to reverse this change with some small concessions. These are that at least two years of data on facility time levels must be collected before the government can intervene; then a letter will be sent to the employer to explain the government’s concerns, and the employer may reply to set out the justification for the facility time levels; then the employer has one year to make changes to their facility time arrangements. Only after this may the government step in to introduce a cap.
Challenged on what problem the government felt it was resolving in Clause 13, Boles asserted that some public sector trade union representatives have “excessive” levels of facility time, but he then admitted that he did not know what levels of facility time public sector workers currently receive or whether this is justified.
It is estimated, he said, that 0.14% of total pay goes towards facility time in the public sector compared with 0.07% in the civil service (where reforms to limit facility time have already been introduced) and 0.04% in the private sector. Of course, without further details it is impossible to know why this is the case, but it could certainly be argued that the raft of huge changes and redundancies in the public sector under Tory rule may have created more work for trade unions than in other sectors.
Boles was asked whether the new powers on facility time would be extended to devolved territories and the Minister confirmed that it would, despite loud opposition from the Welsh Assembly. Labour MP Jo Stevens warned the Commons that by doing this, the government had set itself on a “collision course” with Wales, which would end in the Supreme Court.
Furthermore, the opposition questioned how much it would cost the taxpayer to analyse the tremendous amounts of data that would be collected on facility time levels across the country to determine whether or not they were “justified” and whether any changes to facility time following this expensive process would really represent value for money.
Despite strong opposition, the government’s amendment passed by 307 to 268.
Trade Union progress on the Bill
The Bill now returns to the Lords and we hope that the Lords will stand their ground and push for further concessions. However, it is also important to review how the Bill has changed for the positive as a result of the labour movement’s fight against this punitive piece of legislature.
TUC General Secretary Frances O-Grady yesterday commented: “The bill that passed the Commons today was hugely reduced from what the government had originally proposed – an amazing turnabout for a flagship bill at the start of a new parliament.”
She added: “The trade union movement’s job was to expose just how ill-thought-through the bill was, and to build the campaign against it. And it worked: in recent months the Government have looked increasingly isolated. Pretty much every stage of the parliamentary process has seen concessions from ministers, dealing with growing concern in their own ranks, and growing anger at the shoddy nature of the bill during its progress through the Lords. And today, the government has finally thrown in the towel and conceded on some of the big defeats they suffered in the Lords.”
The TUC listed the concessions made by the government to the Trade Union Bill, as follows:
- DROPPED extreme measures to restrict protest, such as giving employers detailed plans for pickets and social media campaigns two weeks in advance, or making everyone on a picket line show their personal data to the police, employers or anyone who asked to see it.
- SCALED BACK the double threshold for strike ballots in “important public services”, to avoid capturing hundreds of thousands of ancillary workers.
- ABANDONED plans to ban union subscriptions via payroll (check-off), provided the union pays payment processing costs (as many already do).
- CONCEDED safeguards against politicisation of the role of the union regulator (Certification Officer) and reduced its costs to unions.
- WATERED DOWN plans to restrict union political funds. Changes will no longer apply to existing members, and the cost and effort of new requirements will be much reduced.
- AGREED TO a review of letting unions use online methods for strike ballots. This would help increase turnouts, as we know postal balloting suppresses them.
- ADDED SAFEGUARDS to a new reserve power to cap union facility time. This will happen now only after at least 3 years of research and negotiation with employers.
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