11 March 2016
The latest amendments to the Trade Union Bill attempt to balance the law to be less punitive to the labour movement, and have been made by both Labour and Conservative peers.
On Wednesday 16 March, the Bill will enter Report Stage, at which point the Lords will vote on changes proposed to the legislation.
As of today, those amendments include:
A less punitive opt-in process to union political funds
The Government is legislating for new rules that mean both existing and new members of trade unions would need to opt-in to unions’ political funds. Currently, they have the option to opt-out, but are otherwise automatically opted in. In the original draft of the Bill, existing members would have three months to alert their union to their decision to opt-in, and this would have to be in writing.
Amendments put forth by the leaders of the Select Committee the House of Lords established to scrutinise this issue propose that:
- New members do not need to opt-in to the political fund until 12 months after the Act has passed;
- Membership forms need to be clear that new members have a choice over whether or not to opt-in to the fund;
- Existing members will not need to opt-in and can continue to contribute as they already do;
- Opting in can be conducted electronically or via email, rather than by letter;
- Unions must alert members as to their option to opt-out every year and the Certification Officer must produce a code of practice for this process within six months of the Act passing.
Reducing threat of vexatious complaints to the Certification Officer
The Government plans to extend the Certification Officer’s powers to investigate complaints against unions. Currently the regulator looks into complaints made by trade union members, but the new rules would mean third parties can also report breaches, opening the labour movement up to the threat of vexatious complaints (the investigation of which, under other rules proposed in the Bill, unions would be liable to pay for!)
Labour amendments to protect against this risk have been proposed, including that third parties making a complaint would need to be able to demonstrate that they have “sufficient interest” in the issues complained about, or that they have personally suffered due to them.
The amendments also give the Certification Officer power to assess whether the evidence provided by the complainant is of sufficient quality to instigate an investigation.
The introduction of e-balloting for industrial action
A point of contention throughout the debate of the Trade Union Bill in the House of Lords has been the Government’s prohibition of e-balloting technology for unions, despite the proposal of new support thresholds for ballots, which would make it difficult to take industrial action without a convenient way for members to vote.
Crossbencher Lord Kerslake and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Stoneham of Droxford propose that e-balloting is permitted for trade unions following the commissioning of an independent review that informs a strategy for its rollout (both of which must be laid before both House of Parliament).
This review would need to be commissioned within six months of the Act passing into law.
Limiting prohibition of check-off
The Government proposes to prohibit check-off arrangements for the deduction of union subs from members’ wages in the public sector, despite the fact employers do not want this, and that the cost of the system is negligible, in some cases even making a profit for the organisation!
Lord Balfe, a Conservative peer, has proposed that this prohibition should not be imposed where there is an agreement between employers and unions to use it, where the union agrees to cover admin costs, and where members are given the option to pay their subs by other means if they choose to.
The Tory Lord also proposes that the costs charged to unions by public sector bodies must be judged reasonable by the Certification Officer.
Exempting Welsh public bodies from the Act
Labour’s Baroness Morgan of Ely and Plaid Cymru’s Lord Wigley have propose that Welsh public bodies should be exempted from the Act. The Welsh Assembly has already voted that it does not support the Trade Union Bill.
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