19 January 2016
By Lord Monks
The Institute of Employment Rights here reproduces Lord Monks’ speech from the Second Reading of the Trade Union Bill in the House of Lords on Monday 11 January 2016.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to renew working with the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater. I was very disappointed, though, that during his trip through the history of industrial relations in the 1970s and 1980s, he did not refer to more recent history and the positive role played by trade unions in turning round Jaguar Land Rover, the BMW plant at Oxford and a whole range of other places where unions have played an extremely positive role—often with very little encouragement, I might say, from the Benches opposite.
For those of us who also believe in constructive and positive trade unionism, it is very sad to sit here as a Bill is presented which is disproportionate, disrespectful and malicious as far as responsible trade unionism is concerned. Despite the Minister’s able “one nation” rhetoric, the Bill’s purpose is crystal clear: it is to reduce the influence of trade unions. It aims to dump on them a great dollop of obstacles and requirements which would severely limit their freedom to act in both the industrial and the political spheres.
The Government have claimed the Bill to be “moderate, necessary and welcome”. Words such as “reform” and “modernisation” are never far from Ministers’ lips. There really is a case here for referral under the Trade Descriptions Act, for no amount of cosmetic spin or lipstick on the pig can camouflage the Bill’s real intentions. It is not moderate, as is demonstrated, for example, by the one-sided attacks on union political activities, while absolutely nothing is done about the other, often controversial, sources of political funding. It rides roughshod over this country’s obligations to the International Labour Organization regarding the rights of unions, and it wilfully breaches similar obligations under European and human rights laws.
Are employers interested? I cannot find any employers with a significant interest in any of this. They are not in the Michael Edwardes position, to which the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, referred. Times have changed—
Lord Dobbs (Con): The noble Lord says
that he does not know of any employers
who are interested in this.
Has he ridden on the London Tube
recently during one of the endless strikes?
I hope that this House will always remember what unions have achieved in this country. Rather ironically, if noble Lords had walked through Westminster Hall recently, they would have seen an exhibition on the progress of British democracy from Magna Carta onwards. Hanging high and proud in that exhibition was a banner paying tribute to the history and contribution of the trade union movement, and the Tolpuddle martyrs got a mention. How come Conservative headquarters did not stop that positive reference to trade unions? How did that slip through the net when it came to trying to create an image of us as somehow being an enemy of the people—an image that underlies the principles of this Bill?
Lord Monks: I ride on the London Tube every day
and I suffer when other people do,
but it is quite typical of
the Benches opposite to blame
the unions every time there
is an industrial dispute or a strike.
They do not know the causes.
Far too often, they are not interested
in the causes, and it is time
they looked at the background.
I do not know the details of the problems
on London Underground,
but I know that the issues
can be quite complicated and difficult.
It is too easy to jump to blame people
in industrial disputes
but it is much more important
to get to the bottom
of what is happening.
The unions have done a tremendous amount. Where did the weekend, six weeks’ paid holiday, including public holidays, health and safety standards that rank with the world’s best, and equal pay for women all come from? We should remember the Ford sewing machinists at Dagenham. In addition, terms in unionised workplaces would, if more general, make it unnecessary for Governments to legislate on the living wage. I could go on about unions’ achievements.
Many Members of this House will remember, and quite a few participated in, the fierce debates of the 1970s and 1980s about the proper place of unions in our society, as was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord King. We all remember that it was commonplace for unions to be described as “overmighty subjects”. Today, no one—not even the Mayor of London—makes that charge. We are well down the list of “mighty” subjects, yet today it seems to be a rite of passage for Conservative Governments to emulate their predecessors and give the unions a kick, regardless of current realities. Just what are those realities? They are companies such as Sports Direct and Amazon treating workers as casual, disposable objects; companies concentrating on the short-term deal, rather than on investment in new methods and skills; and companies paying disproportionate amounts to not very impressive executives at the head, with the inevitable consequence of widening inequality.
I quote Simon Walker of the Institute of Directors, who said recently:
“Runaway pay packages, golden hellos, and inflammatory bonuses are running the reputation of business into the ground”.
I ask the other side of the House in particular, and others, to consider those words from an organisation that was at the heart of pressing for changes in the 1970s and 1980s. What does the Bill have to say about these and other overmighty subjects, such as the media barons and the banks? In both cases, the impetus to regulate seems to have lost steam and the “light touch” is certainly back in vogue.
I ask all Members of the House to take a lively interest in this Bill. I particularly appeal to those on the Government Benches with ministerial experience of employment matters to bring their expertise to bear on the Bill—even a little bit of back-seat driving would be welcome.
I turn very briefly to the specifics of the Bill. It is important to see this alongside legislation that is already restrictive by the standards of other western democracies. Take the proposed thresholds on industrial action. I will not get into the debate about it being only us who are going to face these kinds of requirements—the Government would not have been elected if similar thresholds were applied to the Westminster elections—or the embarrassingly low turnout for the elections of police commissioners. Leaving all that aside, we must remember that unions are compelled to use postal ballots. Things have moved on since Jim Prior and the debate of the 1970s and 1980s. There are now other ways of doing these things, using technology in the way that the Conservative Party did for the election of its candidate in the mayoral election in London. I do not like the proposed thresholds in principle, but if they were linked to independently-supervised electronic and workplace ballots, maybe a way forward begins to open up.
Clauses 4 and 8 go on to introduce more legal hurdles on what unions must do. I looked in vain, but not with any surprise, for any equivalent obligations on employers. There is nothing at all; the obligations are only on us.
Clause 9 aims to enshrine the existing code of practice on picketing into law. I am absolutely unaware, and have been for a long time, of any problems raised by the police or employers with picketing. I agree with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which thought that the new measures are unnecessary and would waste police resources. That is what the police think, and I ask the Government to consider that point.
Clauses 12 and 13 are about facility time, which the Government regard as wasteful expenditure. However, I wonder whether they have considered recent research by Professors Hogue and Baron that points out that managers in public services overwhelmingly regard facility time in certain locations as useful. The same research showed that 86% of public sector managers believe that union representatives can be trusted to work with honesty and integrity—the banks would kill for a figure such as that in terms of public trust in their integrity or lack of it.
Clause 14 is a key provision aiming to prevent public sector employers—not just the Civil Service but the NHS, local authorities, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly, the nuclear decommissioning estate and more—from deducting union subscriptions from the payroll. The reason given is that somehow check-off is outdated and that direct debit is a much more modern arrangement. But deductions from payroll are an integral part of the auto-enrolment of pensions, and of childcare, travel, charity donations and, as we have heard, bike purchases. Are these old-fashioned, too? Are the Government going to do something about that? It is ridiculous that we get involved in the detail of management in these bodies, which are not the direct employees of government.
I turn very briefly to the political fund rules. The noble Lord, Lord King, did not mention his agreement with the TUC in 1984 that the unions must make it clear to all members that there is an opportunity to opt out from the political fund and to do so on a regular basis—an agreement we kept and about which there has never been a complaint. At the time, Mrs Thatcher believed that opting in would be regarded as an attack on the Labour Party—and now we have that attack on the Labour Party. There are no balancing requirements. Wise words were said earlier about the need to look at these matters together and not in isolation if a reaction is not to be provoked. Not all unions with political funds are affiliated to the Labour Party. None the less, the new proposals will affect them, too.
My final point is on the issue of the certification officer, who will have the power to initiate investigations without the need for anybody to complain. The investigations can be outsourced—no doubt to expensive law firms and consultants—and the union side will bear all the costs. This is a big step towards state supervision of trade unions. It offends the principle of autonomy and is a distant echo—I emphasise “distant”—of a totalitarian and certainly an arrogant approach. Where is the justification for it? The certification officer deals perfectly adequately with complaints now and has not been seeking new powers. It is a vindictive step.
Noble Lords have been patient with my heartfelt contribution. However, as a former general secretary of the TUC and current president of the British Airline Pilots Association, I cannot regard this Bill as a minor tidying-up matter. It is not a series of modest adjustments but offends our pluralistic democracy. It is a mortal threat to some unions. I hope that we can persuade many noble Lords to think similarly in the weeks ahead.