13 September 2013
On Wednesday (13 September 2013), Parliament met for the Second Reading of Part 3 of the Lobbying Bill, which concerns Trade Union Administration. During the debate, Labour MPs highlighted a number of significant problems relating to the Bill, and the way the government has introduced it to parliament.
About the Trade Union Administration section of the Bill
The debate centred around Clause 36 of Part 3, in which trade unions are given a new duty to provide a membership audit certificate to the Certification Officer alongside every annual return.
Trade unions are already required by law to keep an accurate membership register “as far as is reasonably practicable” showing that they know who and where their members are. This obligation was brought in by Thatcher’s government in the mid-1980s and was also legislated for in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Trade union members also have the right to make complaints about trade union activities to the Certification Officer.
Under the new proposals, trade unions would not only be required to have their registers audited every year (by an independent assurer if they have over 10,000 members), but anybody would be able to make a complaint to the Certification Officer about trade union activities and the information provided in the register could be used against a union in court if any mistakes were found. And mistakes are expected, considering the high percentage of union members who move house, or switch jobs, alongside the addition of new members and the loss of former ones. It is very likely that there will be errors in the registers because it is nigh impossible to be absolutely accurate under these circumstances. But errors could be easily used against unions in court whenever they try to take action against an employer.
Labour MP Ian Murrray introduced a series of amendments to Clause 36, which included reducing the frequency of the duty to send a membership audit certificate to the Certification Officer to every time a complaint is made, rather than on an annual basis. He also argued a process should be put in place for unions to appeal if they are accused of being at fault, and that a small levy should be put in place for those wishing to access membership information so as to balance out the costs to unions of following the legislation.
His amendments tone-down the government’s proposals, but in opening the debate he added that the proposals themselves were without merit or necessity.
No rationale behind the proposals
The most contentious issue during the debate was perhaps the resistance of the Coalition to explaining what problem the Bill was designed to fix – perhaps because the proposals are intended to provide a political advantage to the Conservatives rather than address any particular real-life issue.
Since 1987, there have been just 10 complaints made to the Certification Officer that have gone to decision, and in the last five years there have been none. Extrapolating from 2012-13 figures showing there were almost 7.2 million trade union members in the UK, this means that there were not one of the 40 million memberships to trade unions over the last 5 years has led to a complaint. It was also reported that the Certification Officer denies having ever asked the government to change the system or stating that there was any problem with it.
Making an exception of trade unions
Mr Murray looked to a discussion paper by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for insight into the motivation behind the Part 3 of the Bill and found it reasoned there that the auditing of membership registers is necessary because trade unions have a significant impact on the lives of the whole population. However, political parties have a much more significant impact on the population, and there is no requirement for the Conservative Party to provide its own register of members – in fact, nobody outside the party knows who Tory members are or how many there are. Business associations like the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors also have a significant impact on the population – a huge impact compared with trade unions, as the present government consistently listens to these organisations ahead of the labour movement. Yet there is no requirement for either of these associations or others like them to follow regulations anywhere near as stringent as those placed on trade unions in this Bill.
Additionally, there is some concern – particularly as a Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry continues into blacklisting and a blacklisted employee is reinstated on the Crossrail project – that readily available registers showing who is a member of a trade union may lead to discrimination against trade union members.
The influence of Beecroft and big business lobbyists
Importantly, it was pointed out that Part 3 appeared to have been influenced by a report by venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft – owned of payday lender Wonga – who has had a disproportionate hold over employment law from Day One. Like many of the powerful businessmen who have the ear of the Coalition, he donated £550,000 to the Conservative Party.
But not all those powerful businessmen write reports and recommendations, and some are accused of pulling strings behind the scenes – which was the very reason a Lobbying Bill was needed in the first place. But, 95% of commercial corporate lobbyists are not even addressed by the proposals put forth in the Bill.
Abuse of parliamentary procedure
Wednesday’s debate also led to criticism of the way Part 3 of the Bill was introduced. Being launched at the end of July – when parliament entered recess – and having its second reading almost immediately after parliament reconvened, there had only been eight working days between the introduction of Part 3 and its debate.
Furthermore, there has been no consultation on the proposals put forth by Part 3 and, as of the time of the debate, neither MPs nor the Select Committee that was supposed to be scrutinising the Bill had seen an impact assessment for it.
The Coalition’s Red Tape Challenge
Finally, Labour asked the Coalition how they planned to fit the legislation to more strictly regulate trade unions with its ‘vow’ to reduce red tape. The Coalition have put in place a one-in two-out policy on regulation which promises that double the amount of regulation will be removed when new laws are brought in. This policy is to come into effect wherever regulations have a financial impact on organisations, and Clause 36 will certainly cost unions money that will have to be made up from ordinary workers through their dues. The question is, which regulations does the Coalition plan to remove? Or will it turn its back on its own policy?