Third Reading of the Trade Union Bill:

From the Debate on the Third Reading of the Trade Union Bill

Angela Eagle, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills:

As I did on Second Reading, let me begin by drawing the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declaring that I am a lifelong and proud trade unionist.

I believe that our country succeeds when government, employers and employees work in partnership to tackle our economic and social challenges. Evidence shows that good industrial relations are more likely to lead to increased productivity, higher skills, and greater safety in the workplace, so any Government who were serious about economic progress and wellbeing would be working to improve industrial relations, but this Bill demonstrates that we have a Tory Government hellbent on doing the exact opposite.

On Second Reading, I called the Bill “draconian, vindictive and counterproductive”, and during its passage through Parliament, this Government’s malign intent has been proved again and again. This Bill will do absolutely nothing to improve industrial relations in our country; in fact, it risks making them worse. It will do nothing to help build the modern economy we all want to see; in fact, it is an outdated response to the problems of decades past. It is bad for workers and bad for business.

What is it about this Conservative Government that they are so afraid of checks and balances on their power, including challenges from free trade unions and unshackled civil society? This Government are pursuing a very deliberate strategy to legislate their critics into silence or submission, whether through the gagging Act or the war being waged by those on the Tory Benches on the charities that dare to have an opinion contrary to the Government’s. They are attacking the Human Rights Act 1998, targeting the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and issuing threats against the House of Lords for daring to ask them to think again on tax credits. This Government increasingly like to use the law to clamp down on dissent. Now the Conservatives have the trade unions in their sights again.

In Committee, the Government gave no adequate justification for the many draconian measures in this Bill, and no evidence was provided to justify them. The sweeping changes to the opt-in for political funds go well beyond the current practices in Northern Ireland which have been used to justify the change. They are a nakedly partisan attack on Her Majesty’s Opposition. If enacted, these proposals would mark the abrupt end of the Churchill convention and of the long-standing consensus in British politics that the Government of the day should not introduce partisan legislation unfairly to disadvantage their political rivals. This is an abuse, and they know it.

The Bill does nothing to deal with the issue of big money in politics and it leaves Tory funding sources completely untouched, while all the while forcing through changes that threaten the very existence of all political activity and campaigning by trade unions, most of which is entirely unrelated to the Labour party, and which, by the way, is already heavily regulated.

In a healthy democracy, governing should be uncomfortable. Governments should be subject to real challenge. The Government should not use legislative means to shut down debate or dissent, as this Government are now doing. That is why Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute of Human Rights have opposed the Bill on the grounds of civil liberties. It breaches the international standards of the International Labour Organisation and the European convention on human rights.

The Bill gives an inadequate transitional period of just three months to re-recruit the 4.9 million current members of trade union political funds, which this Bill would arbitrarily and retrospectively set at zero. It deliberately allows insufficient time for trade unions to change their own rule books to accommodate that sudden, draconian legislative requirement.

The intrusive new investigatory powers for the certification officer make him the judge, jury and executioner on complaints, which flies in the face of the principles of natural justice.

The provisions on picketing were described by the Government’s own Regulatory Policy Committee as “Not fit for purpose”. The very minor concessions, which were made after Opposition pressure in Committee, do not go nearly far enough.

This Bill just does not fit with modern Britain. It acts as though devolution to our nations and regions never happened, with the Government seeking to ride roughshod over both check-off and facility agreements freely made between employer and employee in the devolved authorities and in English local government. If those agreements work well and facilitate good industrial relations, why do the Government wish to destroy them by central diktat? The obvious conclusion is that this Government want to destroy trade union finances and organisation and to effectively legislate trade unions out of existence.

Throughout the Bill’s passage, Labour has pushed for the introduction of e-balloting and secure workplace balloting, which are already used for a variety of purposes in both the public and the private sectors, including, of course, to choose the Tory mayoral candidate for London. I can think of no organisations besides trade unions where technological change and progress is not only discouraged by the Government, but actually banned by proscriptive legislation. There are no reasonable grounds for the Government’s continued refusal to countenance that wholly sensible change. Trade unions must be allowed to modernise and bring balloting into the 21st century, and I very much hope that my noble Friends in the other place will pick up on that.

We know that trade unions have a vital role to play in a modern economy where business, employees and Government work together for the mutual benefit of our country. It is time that the Government treated trade unions as an equal in that partnership and not as the enemy within.

The Bill is divisive and undermines the basic protections that trade unions provide for people at work. It is poorly drafted, legally unsound and in conflict with international obligations, and it undermines the devolution settlement. It does nothing to tackle the pressing national challenges our public services, businesses and industries alike are facing; instead, it tries to drive a false wedge between Government, industry, employees and the public.

Stopping this Bill requires a UK-wide and united response. I urge Members on both sides of the House to join Labour in the Division Lobby to oppose this nasty, vindictive Bill in its entirety.

Chris Stephens, Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West:

Today we have heard, once again, divisive rhetoric against this country’s trade union movement. We have heard from some Government Back Benchers that trade unionists who are on strike get paid by their employer. That will be news to the millions of trade union members in this country. The real difficulty with and objection to some of the rhetoric we hear is the suggestion that trade union members are somehow different from taxpayers and the public. Trade union members are taxpayers and they are members of the general public.

The Bill infringes human rights and civil liberties, and if unaltered, it can only lead to more work for the courts and, sadly, more blacklisting for trade union members in this country. The Bill attacks the ability of trade unions to organise, as we have seen with the proposals on facility time and check-off. This is not just about party political funding; it is an attack on the trade union movement’s ability to fund general campaigns, such as anti-racist campaigns and campaigns in favour of public services.

It is quite astonishing that the Government believe that aspects of the Bill do not require a legislative consent motion, either from the Scottish Parliament or from the Welsh Assembly, on public services across the board. I predict that that will come back to bite them.

The Minister for Skills was very kind in his words to me, so I will reiterate the words of my hon. Friend Dr Cameron: he gives the appearance of moderation, but his rhetoric is entirely disingenuous.

Jack Dromey, Shadow Minister (Home Affairs):

My dad came here as a navvy from County Cork, joined the British Army to fight Hitler and then became a train driver. Like generations before him and generations after him, he wanted to get on.

The evidence is absolutely clear that those who are in a trade union are more likely to be better paid and to enjoy equal pay, less likely to be unfairly dismissed, bullied or discriminated against, and more likely to work in a safe workplace and to enjoy a decent pension.

I have worked for 40 years in the trade union movement with good employers, including those in the automotive industry such as Jaguar Land Rover, who praise their trade unions for the transformation of the industry to a high-pay, high-quality, high-productivity culture. I have also fought the bad. My whole experience is that trade unions are a force for good and for liberty.

Now, the so-called party of working people wants to weaken working people. It is part of a wider agenda that will brook no opposition: first the charities, then the BBC, even the House of Lords and now the trade unions. The Tory party wants a one party, one nation state.

The great Jack Jones once said that the way for working people to access power was through their union card on the one hand and their right to vote for the Labour party on the other.

Let me show what is so obnoxious about this Bill. When I was treasurer of the Labour party in 2006, against the background of the secret loans scandal and the Hayden Phillips process, it was put to me, “Jack, if we impose a cap on donations of £5,000, it will bankrupt the Tory party.” I said no to doing that because it would be immoral for one party to abuse its power to bankrupt another party. Would that the Conservative party had the same moral compass now.

In conclusion, this is a pernicious and iniquitous Bill. It is born out of malice, informed by prejudice and has no place in a democracy. That is why the true party of working people, the Labour party, will vote against it tonight.

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