Jo Stevens

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Trade Union Bill back in the House of Commons

The Trade Union Bill was back in the House of Commons yesterday for us to debate and vote on the amendments to the Bill that the House of Lords had passed.

When we finished the debate and vote last night, I had very mixed feelings. We had, through a very effective campaign and hard work by the trade union and Labour movement involving Labour MPs, Assembly Members, Councillors, activists, members and many others, managed to get significant changes to the Bill. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this success. However, there is a lot left in the Bill that will prevent over six million trade union members and their union collectively, being able to organise, recruit, campaign and represent effectively and we couldn't defeat the Bill as a whole because of the Government's majority. No Tory MPs were willing to rebel.

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I still believe the Bill is illegal, illiberal and illiterate. I prepared a speech for the debate yesterday, but because of the limited time available for us to speak, I was the last MP called by the Deputy Speaker and had only 30 seconds. I used that time to press the Minister for a final time, not to impose this Bill on Wales because it will end up being challenged in the Supreme Court at great cost to the taxpayer and the UK Government will lose.

Many people have contacted me expressing their concerns about this Bill so here's the full text of my speech that I had intended to make.

I draw the House's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interests and to the fact that I am a member of the GMB and Unison unions.

When I spoke in the debate on Second Reading I said that this Bill was "illegal, illiberal and illiterate".

Events have proved me right.

As the Bill has proceeded through Parliament, we have seen the Government unable to justify its position or deal with substantive objections in the Bill Committee and in the other place. We have seen leaked letters, u-turns and concessions in the face of overwhelming defeats in the other place.

And now the Bill returns to this House – still an unnecessary and unworkable measure, born of the Conservative Party's hostility to trade unions and the millions of working people of this country that they represent.

I rise to speak today on the Government's amendment on facility time and, in doing so, will also refer to the related provisions on deductions of union subscriptions.

I know, from my experience as an employer in the private sector, the value of effective workplace representation in the management of change and the resolving of issues and disagreements. This means ensuring that union representatives who work for the employer have the necessary time and resources to carry out these important duties.

And this is not just my experience. It is confirmed by independent research. And a review in 2007 by the predecessor of the BIS department, concluded that the work of union representatives on facility time reduced the number of cases proceeding to employment tribunal, reduced working days lost due to workplace injury and reduced workplace related illness, resulting in massive financial benefits to the public sector and the economy as whole.

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And yet the Government wheeled out a so called expert witness on these issues to the Bill Committee who had to admit in her evidence that she had not even heard of facility time and did not know what it was. This epitomised the shabby and disrespectful approach the party opposite took to the scrutiny of this Bill by members of this House.

The government seeks to impose hugely bureaucratic requirements on public sector employers which have facility time agreements with unions.   

Public employers will be required to publish information on the number of employees who have facility time, how much is spent on facility time, what type of activities or duties were carried out, as well as details of physical facilities provided.

As an employer, I know how onerous this is. How costly it is. And the data protection and privacy issues that it raises.

As the government itself says in its European Convention of Human Rights Memorandum, the avowed intention is to deter public sector employers from granting facility time.

The Impact Assessment (January 2016) says this will affect 21,000 public bodies. Of 20,000 are state funded primary and secondary schools. Adding a further layer of bureaucracy to the burdens already placed on those providing public services. Tying them up in red tape. Wasting their time and resources. And all for facility time which amounts to less than 0.2% of the public sector pay bill.

And many more employers may also be affected. The Government has reserved to itself the power to extend these onerous requirements to bodies with functions of a public nature. Whilst it is welcome that the government that it is only those bodies funded wholly or mainly funded from public funds (not merely partly funded) who are covered, the devil will be in the detail of the regulations that only this week have been published.

I am pleased the government has given ground and conceded that those regulations must be approved by a resolution of each House. 

The government was defeated in the House of Lords on its provision for a reserve power to impose a cap on facility time. A welcome victory for common sense, recognising that it is for employers to negotiate locally on these arrangements; not for Whitehall to dictate and impose on local employers. The government has belatedly recognised and agreed this on check-off. It should do the same on facility time.

The government has now returned to this House seeking to reintroduce the power to impose a cap.  

Whilst it is welcome that the government has stepped back from a blanket ban on facility time, doesn't this amendment highlight the absurdity of these proposals?

We in this House are being asked to legislate to permit a Minister to interfere in the affairs of a particular employer. To engage in correspondence with that employer and require that employer to provide an explanation. And, at the end of all that, to make regulations which restrict the activities of one employer.

I say that it is not the function of this House to facilitate direct Ministerial action against individual employers, their workforces and representatives in that way.

This is state interference in the contractual rights of employers, unions and working people. The government itself said in its ECHR Memorandum that these regulations "will have effect in relation to existing contractual arrangements and could therefore have retrospective effect" and potentially conflict with fundamental rights of Freedom of Association (Article 11) and Non-Discrimination (Article 14) in the European Convention. It also potentially breaches EU law by interfering in the statutory rights given to health and safety representatives which are given special legal protection.

Employers should be allowed to reach and operate agreements with their workforce and representatives which enable them to work in the most effective way.

Rights and responsibilities are given to public employers and they should be allowed to exercise them without Ministerial micro-management which damages industrial relations.

And this is particularly so of devolved administrations. Let me focus on Wales.

The Minister is seeking to have the power that a UK Minister in the Westminster government can impose restrictions on an individual employer in Wales providing public services in Wales for which it is accountable to the Welsh Government and the people of Wales.

The Government of Wales and the people of Wales do not want this interference. They, and we, have made this abundantly clear. 

The party opposite is wrong to seek to impose these measures on Wales when they do not have the power to do so.

The Welsh Labour Government, supported by all the other parties in the Assembly, with the exception of the Party opposite, said that these provisions should not apply to devolved public services.

There are good industrial relations in the public sector in Wales – the fact there is no junior doctors strike in Wales this week being the most obvious example – and it is not for the UK government to interfere in the successful operation of those devolved services.

The Minister knows this and has admitted as much, in his letter which found its way into the press, he conceded that the government had been advised by First Treasury Counsel that it had "a weak case in relation to Wales".

Labour is committed, in its Manifesto for the Assembly elections in Wales next Thursday, to "repeal sections of the UK Government's regressive Trade Union legislation in devolved areas".

This has the support of all parties currently represented in the Assembly, save the party opposite.

The Minister is placing the government on a collision course with the Welsh government which will end up in the Supreme Court at great cost to the public purse and where the UK government will, on its own legal advice, lose.

The government should accept now that no UK government Minister has power to impose a cap on facility time operated by any employer providing public services devolved to Wales.

The government is legislating in areas where legislation has no place. It is entering dangerous waters and is doomed to run aground at great cost to the taxpayer and to our public services. 

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