The trade union bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords. The trade union bill, which introduces a high threshold for ballots on industrial action, is set to become law. Bob Kerslake was head of the civil service between 2011 and 2014 and he says that the main thrust of the measures seems to be both partisan and disproportionate to the supposed problems that they are seeking to address. “Taken with the other measures being put forward by the government – curtailing the powers of the lords, watering down the Freedom of Information Act, cutting the so-called “short money” to support the opposition parties – they demonstrate a worryingly authoritarian streak in this government that is not comfortable with scrutiny and challenge.”
He says “For all my frustrations with trade unions, I recognise that they had a legitimate role to defend their members, individually and collectively. Indeed it is arguable that given the scale change their members have faced, including real-terms pay reductions, the trade unions have acted with considerable restraint.
Kerslake explains he has four issues with the proposed anti-union laws.
“First, the proposals for ballots on industrial action. There is a case for a threshold on turnout before action can be taken and indeed most trade union leaders recognise the need for a proper mandate. It has to be said, though, that the proposed threshold of more than half of the members voting is a level of turnout that most police and crime commissioners could only dream of. The further requirement of 40% support of the membership for the important public services is a very stiff test. Indeed the current government happily governs with less than a quarter of the electorate having voted for them. But the most completely unreasonable requirement is that trade unions will not be able to conduct these ballots electronically. In 2007, when I was chief executive of Sheffield city council, we ran one of the biggest electronic voting pilots. It was not without its challenges, but I came to the very clear conclusion that electronic voting is as least as secure, if not more so, than postal ballots. Since then we have got used to carrying out vastly more of our lives online. To prevent trade unions from using this route seems petty and unreasonable.
Second, the introduction of an “opt in” requirement for trade union members to contribute to political funds, which has to be renewed every five years. In the absence of a proper review of the funding of political parties, this can only be seen as a one-sided attempt by one political party to undermine the main funding source of another. It opens the door for a tit-for-tat response by Labour at some time in the future.
Third, the powers to prescribe the arrangements for funding of time off for officials and prohibit deductions of union subscriptions from payroll. These will apply to all public bodies, central and local, regardless of whether those bodies would want to act differently. So the secretary of state will be able to tell Sheffield council – or, indeed Aberdeen council, as the bill also applies in Scotland and Wales – how much they can spend on paid facility time for their employers’ trade union representatives and whether those representatives are full-time or part-time.
This seems to me to be a quite extraordinarily centralising step to take for a government that is championing devolution. Local government at least ought to be trusted to come to its own arrangements.
Finally, the bill will extend the role and powers of the central government certification officer, who is responsible for overseeing the conduct of trade union. This will include, for example, a new power to impose financial penalties that will add to the regulatory cost and bureaucracy for trade unions, especially the smaller ones, with no evidence from employers or trade union members themselves that this is actually needed.”
Kerslake concludes his article by writing “The issues at stake here go beyond the immediate concerns of the trade unions themselves, or indeed one political party. They go to the heart of what we mean by an open society and balanced, proportionate government.”