12 February 2016
The House of Lords has this week debated e-balloting as part of the Committee stage of the Trade Union Bill.
On Monday (08 February 2016), Lords from across all parties and none opposed the restrictions to the use of e-balloting among trade unions. Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Business Baroness Neville-Rolfe agreed in principle to the use of e-balloting, but continued to push the government’s arguments on hitherto undefined “security” risks, asking for more time to consider the proposals to amend the Bill.
Many of the peers highlighted that the introduction of the 50% threshold on turnout and the 40% support threshold in “important” public services in conjunction with the mandatory use of postal ballots put enormous and unjustified pressure on unions.
“Nowhere else in the advanced world is the requirement on how to ballot linked to questions of threshold, and nowhere else is there a requirement to have a mandatory postal ballot,” Labour’s Lord Monk pointed out.
“In their wish to curtail the relatively few strikes that do take place in the UK today, the Government are using the combination of high thresholds plus postal ballots as a way of stamping out dissent and protest,” he added.
Cross bencher Lord Pannick warned the government that it risks breaching international law if it refuses to allow for e-balloting, saying “the Government may be vulnerable to a legal challenge under Article 11 [of the European Convention on Human Rights] because a court will consider the package of statutory provisions as a whole when it assesses whether those provisions are proportionate and whether they have an objective justification.”
It was also highlighted by several peers that the prohibition of e-balloting among trade unions was unfair when other organisations are permitted to use the technology.
Independent peer Lord Dykes said: “I was in business for many years and we may compare the fairly easy-going procedures for corporate AGMs with what is being planned to bring the trade unions to heel. That might be an emotional phrase that is used fairly by some people and probably with enthusiasm by some of our right-wing newspapers. It would be a great tragedy if there were one standard for one set of people and another for another.”
Indeed, one of those “other” parties is the Conservative Party itself, which used e-balloting in its election of London Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, yet still insists that the technology cannot be used by the trade unions.
This was brought to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Business Baroness Neville-Rolfe, but she brushed it aside with an unconvincing argument that industrial action has a larger effect on the population than who is chosen to run for the governance of London!
“The difference is that strikes have a huge effect on our public services and can cause significant disruption for hard-working people. We are legislating here not for the mayoralty of London, but for industrial relations. Statutory ballots require strong assurance on issues such as legitimacy, safety and security of voting,” she said.
The Lords expressed their intention to return to the issue at a later date, with Baroness Neville-Rolfe stating: “We have no objection in principle to electronic methods of balloting, but we need to be reassured on issues of legitimacy, safety and security of voting…We need to reflect further on the best way to conduct electronic balloting.”