Trade Union Bill


The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Sir Edward Leigh  , † Sir Alan Meale 

Argar, Edward (Charnwood) (Con) 

Barclay, Stephen (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con) 

Blenkinsop, Tom (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab) 

Boles, Nick (Minister for Skills)  

Cameron, Dr Lisa (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP) 

Cartlidge, James (South Suffolk) (Con) 

Doughty, Stephen (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op) 

Elliott, Julie (Sunderland Central) (Lab) 

Ghani, Nusrat (Wealden) (Con) 

Howell, John (Henley) (Con) 

Kennedy, Seema (South Ribble) (Con) 

Mearns, Ian (Gateshead) (Lab) 

Morden, Jessica (Newport East) (Lab) 

Morris, Anne Marie (Newton Abbot) (Con) 

Prentis, Victoria (Banbury) (Con) 

Stephens, Chris (Glasgow South West) (SNP) 

Stevens, Jo (Cardiff Central) (Lab) 

Sunak, Rishi (Richmond (Yorks)) (Con) 

Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Public Bill Committee 

Thursday 22 October 2015  

(Morning)  

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair] 

Trade Union Bill

11.30 am 

The Chair:  Before we begin, would everyone ensure that all electronic devices are switched off or set to silent mode? That goes for members of the public as well. I point out to both sides of the Committee that we are only on clause 8. We have 22 clauses and a heck of a lot of business to get through. There are a lot of Government and Opposition amendments to deal with, and we have four sittings of the Committee left. 

I say to the Opposition that this is an opportunity for them to highlight the key components of the Bill, get the message out there and seek change. I say to the Government that this is an open-ended Committee stage, and if we do not advance enough, an application may be made for an extension of Committee time. I would not like to see that happen. We need to get to the point and have less repetition, although we know it is warranted by both sides of the argument. It is essential that we speed up a little bit if we are to deal with the issues at hand, because I know there is some quite big stuff coming at the end of our considerations. Without further ado, we will continue line-by-line consideration. 

Clause 8 

Expiry of mandate for industrial action four months after date of ballot 

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op):  I beg to move amendment 75, in clause 8, page 4, line 16, after “Subsection 1” insert 

“and section 233(1) (a) of the 1992 Act, as amended by this Act”.

The amendment would ensure that any re-ballot or renewal of mandate, or the first ballot, is not prejudiced in any way by any unofficial action that may have taken place.

I take on board what you said, Sir Alan, and will attempt to move at a brisk pace to make progress. However, this Bill has very serious implications, and we need to ensure, as the Opposition, that it receives adequate scrutiny, particularly given many of our objections to it. 

Amendment 75 is a probing one, to understand the implications of unofficial actions that may have taken place for a union’s ability to conduct subsequent ballots. The law currently prevents a union from running a ballot for industrial action if its members have previously taken unofficial action, or what some would determine “wildcat” action, in a dispute. That can limit a union’s ability to seek to resolve an ongoing trade dispute and ensure that its members’ democratic wishes are given effect. The amendment would ensure that a prior unofficial call to action would not prevent the union from running a subsequent ballot. 

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Obviously, I do not condone unofficial actions or actions outside the law, but we need to accept that they take place. We have explored many circumstances in our considerations of the Bill in which wildcat action may in fact be encouraged by the Government’s legislation. I do not want that to happen, and I am sure the Government do not want that to happen, but it is a potential consequence. 

It is important that we understand the implications of unofficial action for trade union members engaging in legitimate ballots and wanting to have legitimate discussions about action they might take. Will the Minister clarify the impacts of any unofficial action that takes place before a first ballot or between a first ballot and any subsequent reballoting? We discussed the timing of that at great length, but I would like some clarification. 

The Minister for Skills (Nick Boles):  I will endeavour to be as pithy as I can. The merest raised eyebrow on your part, Sir Alan, will cause me to sit down quickly. 

I appreciate the shadow Minister’s desire to ensure that the occurrence of any unofficial industrial action does not affect a union’s ability to rely on a mandate that it has legitimately secured or to seek a further such mandate. I hope to provide him with assurance on that point. 

In order to have the support of a ballot and for the union therefore to benefit from legal protection, a number of provisions first need to be satisfied, one of which is that industrial action has to be called by a person specified or specifically described in the voting paper—that is to say, a union. That ensures that any industrial action not under the control of the union can be subject to legal action by an employer, which is necessary to prohibit so-called wildcat strikes and to prevent such disputes from snowballing. The fact that unofficial industrial action is not legally protected does not affect a union’s ability to secure a valid ballot mandate or to call official industrial action on the basis of a valid ballot mandate. That is the current position, and the Bill does not alter that. I trust that that assists the hon. Gentleman, and I ask him to withdraw the amendment. 

Stephen Doughty:  I thank the Minister for that clarification. It is helpful to have it read into the record. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. 

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.  

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill. 

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 7. 

Division No. 17 ]  

AYES

Argar, Edward   

Barclay, Stephen   

Boles, Nick   

Cartlidge, James   

Ghani, Nusrat   

Howell, John   

Kennedy, Seema   

Morris, Anne Marie   

Prentis, Victoria   

NOES

Cameron, Dr Lisa   

Doughty, Stephen   

Elliott, Julie   

Mearns, Ian   

Morden, Jessica   

Stephens, Chris   

Stevens, Jo   

Question accordingly agreed to.  

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Clause 9 

Union supervision of picketing 

Stephen Doughty:  I beg to move amendment 26, in clause 9, page 4, line 37, leave out 

“or encourages its members to take part in,”. 

With this amendment, I hope to cover some of the Opposition’s concerns about clause 9. We have also tabled a series of other amendments, and we look forward to hearing the arguments of Scottish National party Members on their amendments in due course. 

We come to the “Franco-style” sections of the Bill. They are not my words, but those of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). This clause, above all others, has served as a recruiting sergeant to those outside this place who are implacably opposed to the Bill. The Government’s own Regulatory Policy Committee condemned it, and a coalition of concerned leading civil liberties groups—Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute of Human Rights—gave extensive evidence, including in oral form, to this Committee, and said that they have many concerns about this part of the Bill. The clause, which has all the hallmarks of being penned in the Secretary of State’s hand, would be unforgivable at the best of times, but on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the document embodying Britain’s most fundamental freedoms, I believe it represents an alarming and daring attempt by the Government to stifle the legitimate rights of ordinary working people. 

The clause will introduce a new restriction on picketing activities by trade unions and their members. Any failure to comply with those overly prescriptive requirements will expose trade unions to legal challenges. Employers will be able to apply to court for an injunction to prevent or impose restrictions on a picket, or even for damages if, for example, a picket supervisor fails to wear an armband or inadvertently misplaces their letter of authorisation. I am sure we will discuss the specifics of some of those issues in due course. 

If hon. Members thought the Government’s proposals stopped there, they would be wrong. Over the summer, the Government ran a very short consultation. We have already discussed the concerns that many of those affected by the clause have about the consultation process, which many echoed in oral evidence. They said that on this issue, in particular, the consultation was insufficient, given the scale of the changes. 

The TUC highlighted a range of additional restrictions on union pickets and protests, including—these were mentioned in the consultation—a requirement that unions publish picket and protest plans 14 days in advance, detailing where, when and how they plan to protest and whether they propose to use social media, Twitter and Facebook accounts to draw attention to their campaign. We heard the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead about the potential for secondary tweeting and wildcat Facebook action. We can have some fun about this, but the reality is that it is very serious because there are significant implications for police time, as we heard in the police evidence. In my view, it simply does not make sense. 

There are also new criminal offences prohibiting intimidatory conduct on picket lines, even though such an offence already exists. Again, I clarify that we in no way condone intimidatory and inappropriate actions by

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individuals involved in protest or picketing. Those actions need to be dealt with appropriately, but the fact is that those offences already exist. 

We understand that the Government are considering whether to direct local authorities to use antisocial behaviour orders against union members participating in pickets and protests. I have always been a big supporter of ASBOs, but they were designed with specific behaviour in mind. To extend them to activities that are— 

Nick Boles:  On a point of order, Sir Alan. The hon. Gentleman is referring to a whole lot of questions that were asked in the consultation document, none of which has any application to any of the clauses in the Bill or any of the new clauses or amendments tabled by the Government. Is it in order to discuss a whole lot of entirely speculative questions that are not dealt with in the Bill? 

The Chair:  Minister, how the hon. Gentleman approaches the amendment is down to him. I ask him to be concise in his endeavour to search for the truth, or falsehood as it may be. However, it is his time and he is moving the amendment, so he is in order. 

Stephen Doughty:  Thank you, Sir Alan, for that clarification. Of course, if the Minister did not want me to stray on to that type of territory, it would have been helpful if the Government had published their responses to the consultations. They undertook many consultations over the summer, but we have not seen the responses to them. We have not seen secondary legislation. We have not had a lot of the clarity that is required. We are being asked to discuss the Bill and its implications largely in the dark. There were whispers from some in the media that the Government planned to withdraw some of these changes. So that we do not discuss things unnecessarily, it would be helpful if the Minister clarified those issues in his remarks. 

As I have said before, what question are these proposals trying to answer? Picketing activities are already heavily regulated in the UK by an extensive range of civil and criminal laws. Trade unions must comply with the requirements for peaceful pickets in section 220 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and act in accordance with the accompanying code of practice. Unions and their members are also—this is very important—subject to a range of laws on public order, highways, protection from harassment, criminal damage and so on. It is a criminal offence already for pickets to use violence or intimidate individuals or their families, to follow individuals from place to place, to hide work tools and to watch and beset an individual. Those are certainly not activities that I or any Opposition Member would endorse, but they are already covered under the law. 

The view from the police representatives—from the Police Federation and from the National Police Chiefs’ Council—during the oral evidence sessions was clear. They do not see a need for these extra powers and, if the Government introduce them, that carries a significant risk of stretching their limited resources further still. 

The Government, just as the London Fire Brigade representative did in his submission, have sought to rely on evidence gathered during the recent Carr review, even though the Government’s own impact assessment, on page 5, confirmed that 

“this evidence could not be substantiated.” 

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Further to that, Carr decided that he was unable to make evidence-based proposals or recommendations for change as originally instructed because of 

“the increasingly political environment within which” 

he 

“was operating coupled with the lack of a significant enough body of evidence to support any recommendations for change.” 

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills consultation document acknowledged that most pickets conform to the guidance set out in the existing code of practice. The RPC’s recent review of the Government’s impact assessment found that 

“there is little evidence presented that there will be any significant benefits arising from this proposal”. 

Leading civil liberties groups, which I have already mentioned, recently issued a joint statement criticising the Government’s proposals. They stated: 

“The government’s plans to significantly restrict trade union rights—set out in the Trade Union Bill—represent a major attack on civil liberties in the UK…Taken together the unprecedented measures…would hamper people’s basic rights to protest and shift even more power from the employee to the employer. It is hard to see the aim of this bill as anything but seeking to undermine the rights of all working people.” 

At a time when, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), the thin blue line is being stretched thinner and thinner, the Government’s proposals risk diverting scarce police resources from tackling serious crime. I deal with, for example, many issues relating to extremism. I have had examples of that in my constituency. We have had lengthy discussions with the Government about the policing of the activities of extremists on social media and so on. That is where police efforts should be directed; they should not be directed towards matters such as this, which are already covered under existing provisions. As I said, the existing law provides for the police to crack down on illegality and breaches of the peace, all the while protecting the rights of trade union members to engage in peaceful picketing at the entrance to their workplaces. I fear that the Government are seeking to stack the deck against those who want to take part in peaceful, lawful pickets, by moving the goalposts, potentially placing those people outside the law. That, fundamentally, is why we will oppose clause 9. 

11.45 am 

Amendment 26 would limit the application of the rules on picket supervisors to pickets organised by the union—not pickets that it encourages its members to take part in. I look at it in this way: the Minister and I disagree on a lot—almost everything to do with the Bill—and I concede that at times I have perhaps egged him on and encouraged him to engage in a robust debate that he might not otherwise have wanted; but would it be right or reasonable for me to be held responsible for his response? Of course not; so it is unreasonable to require trade unions to take responsibility, and be liable for, picketing activities that they have not organised. 

There is concern, rightly, that the provisions could be applied very broadly, and that they could include any picketing activities referred to favourably by union officials in social media or other communications. That is a very

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specific point and I want to understand the Minister’s view on it. Will he clarify whether, for example, if a union stated that it was in solidarity with an action happening in another part of the country, that would suddenly make it liable under the picketing regulations with respect to that action, even though it was not the union that organised it? We are getting into difficult territory, where unions could get caught up in all sorts of legal proceedings through untoward circumstances. I would appreciate it if the Minister would clarify the position. 

Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Alan. 

Just before I came to this room for the Bill Committee, there was an urgent question on human rights in China, put down by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), I think. It is interesting that that question should exercise Members of this House to such an extent, when often some of them are less interested in the human rights of people in the United Kingdom. The clause is at the core of some of the most offensive aspects of this pernicious Bill. It clearly shows the extent of the prejudice and contempt in which the Government hold trade unions, trade unionists and working people. 

I want to echo some of the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth about the Government’s consultation. The consultation document was published in July and it dealt with protests related to pickets. I understand the Minister getting vexed because we have not yet had the response to the consultation, but clearly the Government were thinking about something when they included a requirement for publication of picketing and protest plans, and, in the bullet points under that heading, that the union should give notice of whether 

“it will be using social media, specifically Facebook, Twitter, blogs, setting up websites and what those blogs and websites will set out”. 

So as well as giving notice that social media were to be used, the union would have to give notice of what it was going to say in support of a picketing protest. That attitude has all the hallmarks of an authoritarian regime. 

Authoritarian regimes across the world—China has been mentioned this morning—might give little thought to restrictions on their citizens’ human rights, but it is a disgrace that our Government should consider such action in the United Kingdom reasonable. Citizens in the UK are covered now by the law of the land. We are all—everyone—required to keep the peace; and we have a police force to ensure that the peace is kept in an appropriate manner. Trade unionists and workers are all part of the citizenry and are covered by those same laws, so why do we need additional draconian measures to restrict workers’ and trade unions’ right to lawful demonstration? 

In the 1980s Mrs Thatcher described the Argentinians as “the enemy without” and trade unions and trade unionists as “the enemy within”. I wonder whether the clause is the 2015 Conservative Government conducting unfinished business on behalf of one of the Prime Minister’s predecessors. The Prime Minister and his colleagues in Government want to pretend that times have changed and that the so-called “nasty party” that attacked the rights of gay people, workers and others is no more. The clause puts the lie to that pretence. 

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The Government party, through this legislation, retains its mantle, I believe, as the nasty party. The party and the Government consider their own citizens to be the enemy. The clause is not only not necessary, the law of the land already protects us all from unreasonable and unlawful public demonstrations. No, it is not necessary. 

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP):  Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a YouGov poll conducted last month, indicating that a majority of the public feels that it is a waste of police time to be engaged in this manner? In addition, a majority of respondents who stated they voted Conservative also held similar views. 

Ian Mearns:  I am not surprised because the vast majority of our adult population goes to work for a living. Whether they are members of trade unions or not would not stop them in extreme circumstances trying to exercise their right to withdraw their labour if they felt their employer was being unreasonable. The legislation is not necessary but it is highly offensive. Workers and trade unionists are the backbone of this country, the so-called hard-working people that the Tory party pretends to bother about and represent. 

The measure of a civil society is how it respects the rights of its citizens, and how those without power and wealth are able to challenge those with power and wealth. With this legislation—particularly this clause—the Government have demonstrated precisely where they stand on the issue of human rights and freedom. Their fundamental position is to oppress and restrict the weakest, the most vulnerable and those without, in order to protect at all costs privilege, wealth and inequality. 

The restrictions in the Bill on picketing are a disgrace and threaten to increase tensions on picket lines by singling out workers who are merely exercising their democratic right to withdraw their labour. It is, therefore, no surprise to learn that the human rights organisations we heard from last week—Liberty and Amnesty International—have said the provisions in the Bill represent a major attack on civil liberties in the United Kingdom. 

It is not only human rights organisations that are uneasy about the proposed arrangements on picketing. Substantial concerns have been raised on the practicalities of the arrangements, some of which have been communicated first hand to this Committee. I draw on evidence provided to us last week by Deputy Chief Constable Hall of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, who said: 

“In the majority of cases, there is no real need for the police to be involved with industrial disputes and picketing. Indeed, our stance is that we would wish to avoid it if we can. Many pickets and industrial disputes run without any contact or involvement with policing.” 

He went on to say: 

“There are provisions in the Bill for police to be notified of picket lines, and my reading of that is that, in pretty much every instance, we would be notified of industrial disputes and picketing. My position is that I do not see that as absolutely necessary, simply because we would expect those picket lines to be self-policing as far as possible. Involvement of police beyond that should be the exception, rather than the rule.”––[Official Report, Trade Union Public Bill Committee, 15 October 2015; c. 93, Q242.] 

That gives us a clear insight into his opposition to the proposals on those grounds. 

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Deputy Chief Constable Hall is not alone in that. The Police Federation added similar concerns that the already overstretched police force would not be able to cope with increased levels of supervision of pickets and continue to do its job effectively, as it is already struggling due to limited resources at present. Its statement articulately expresses that sentiment: 

“As we have seen in recent weeks, some forces may not even be able to investigate burglaries in future...This proposal for officers to more intrusively supervise strikes indicates more clearly than ever that what we need is a wide-ranging debate to inform both the future direction of the police service and the public’s expectations as to what we are able and simply unable to do. Police officers join the job to keep the public safe and lock up criminals but doing that job effectively is getting close to impossible for many officers around the country.” 

It is not just the police force that has concerns about the lack of resources. The general public—the very people who those on the Government Benches claim to be putting first by implementing the Bill—agree. We have heard about the YouGov survey and the TUC figure that three quarters of the public believe it is a bad use of police time for workers taking industrial action to have to give the police 14 days’ notice if they intend to carry a loudspeaker or banner on the picket line; I happen to agree. 

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab):  The Government’s own Department for Business, Innovation and Skills consultation document acknowledges that most unions are already conforming to the guidance set out in the code of practice. Does my hon. Friend agree that this whole raft of new restrictions is therefore entirely unnecessary? 

Ian Mearns:  I could not agree more; I was just coming on to that very point. There is already legislation in place that those on picket lines must, and do, comply with. That “peaceful pickets” legislation is outlined in section 220 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, and unions must also follow the relevant code of practice. If that legislation were breached on a regular basis, I could see why the Government would feel the need to push through this Bill, in order to safeguard workers and the public, but unions do comply with existing legislation. Even the Government’s own BIS consultation document supports that statement, finding that most pickets do conform with guidance in the code of practice. In that case, why do the Government believe the legislation is so necessary? Are they not using a legislative sledgehammer to crack a very small nut? 

Furthermore, as the Regulatory Policy Committee’s recent review of the Government’s impact assessment of the measures on picketing found, 

“there is little evidence presented that there will be any significant benefits arising from the proposal”. 

Given that such organisations have failed to find any need for the proposal or any significant benefits arising from it, why is the legislation being rushed through the House at such a pace? As we heard, we have not had much time to go through the Bill line by line, despite its importance. 

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP):  Does the hon. Gentleman share the concern held by many, including me, that if unaltered, the clause will lead to more blacklisting within the community? 

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Ian Mearns:  That is a concern, because the use of blacklists by some employers—I will not tar all employers with the same brush—has had a devastating impact on hard-working families. 

The results of the public consultation have not yet been published. I refer to my earlier comments about the overstretched police force. Do Government Members believe that policing peaceful picket lines, monitoring wildcat tweeting and using wider controls on social media are the best use of police time? As I see it, the proposal merely serves to stack the already skewed balance of power in the workplace further away from employees by adding unnecessary caveats to their right to withdraw their labour if they are upset by the actions of their employer. 

Jo Stevens:  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. Government Members seemed perturbed by our opposition to their proposals on picketing during the evidence sessions last week. They did not seem to understand how a picket line could be assembled because of an incredibly serious issue and yet be done with good humour and within the law. I am sure many of our colleagues across the trade union movement would be happy to visit a picket line with them, to show them what happens there. As with much of the coverage of trade unions in the papers, the headlines do not match the reality. 

As we have heard, there are already strict rules for picketing and adherence to the code of practice, which even the CBI, the Government’s own witness, admitted last week generally “works well”. In the minority of cases in which there is an issue, the police already have sufficient powers to deal with any sort of suggested intimidation or abuse, because such actions are illegal. Picketing is not illegal—so far. It is therefore completely unnecessary to bring forward increases in regulation and bureaucracy that will waste police time. That is why so few witnesses supported the Government’s proposals in the evidence sessions or could say why such clauses are needed given the current laws. 

12 pm 

As was mentioned, the review of the plans got off to an auspicious start with a less than glowing review from the Government’s Regulatory Policy Committee. I remind the Committee that Sara Ogilvie from Liberty said in evidence last week: 

“The thought that we would require a person in 2015 to wear an armband and carry a letter of authorisation at the behest of the state in order to exercise their”— 

legitimate— 

“rights does not seem right.”––[Official Report, Trade Union Public Bill Committee, 13 October 2015; c. 58, Q157.] 

We also heard from Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group, who rebutted claims that being identified by police on picket line was akin to going on a school trip. He said: 

“What there is an objection to is that if you are on a school trip, you are not being asked by the police to provide your name, and if I am on a picket line, I am not breaking any laws. I have not done anything illegal, and without any suspicion, or due suspicion that I have broken laws, the police will come and take my name.”––[Official Report, Trade Union Public Bill Committee, 13 October 2015; c. 66, Q169.] 

The Government did not find any better friends in the police force. We heard the Police Federation and Deputy Chief Constable Hall articulate concerns about

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resources. The Committee will recall that I specifically asked both witnesses whether they would rather have this legislation or not, bearing in mind current police workload requirements. Given the choice, neither of them would have this legislation. 

At the very crux of our objections to the proposals is the firm belief that trade union members have the right to freedom of association. They have the same human rights as every individual in this room. Those rights are not weakened when they put a union card in their purse or pocket. By the time that union members reach picket lines, they will have been through a ballot process with an arbitrary threshold, without the right to vote online or in their workplace. They will be in dispute with their employer, with their pay, jobs or services to which they devote their lives on the line. They will be subject to an inspection of their records whenever the certification officer feels like it. They will have had to give 14 days’ notice of their plans to employers, potentially including whether they plan to use social media on the day of the picket. When picketing, without committing any crime, they will be forced to wear a badge and to give their name to a police officer while carrying a letter of authorisation that any passer-by could request to see that says that they have the right to be there. No other group in civil society has such a burden placed upon simply for standing up for their rights and making their voices heard. The clauses are nothing more than an ideological attack on a group of people. They are discriminatory, and I urge the Minister to rethink them. 

Nick Boles:  Before I address the detail of the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, let me state clearly that the Government recognise peaceful picketing as an entirely lawful activity. People must be able to exercise their rights to assemble and to freedom of expression. The Bill does not change any of that. The law has been developed in order to protect such rights. It provides unions with statutory immunity against claims for damages to enable individuals to peacefully persuade others to break their contracts. 

The rights to assemble and to freedom of expression are rights that apply to all of us. That is the whole point. I am confident that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that right should not be exercised by some at the expense of others. We cannot defend picketing being used as an opportunity to intimidate people who exercise the same rights to freedom of expression and of assembly, which, in their case, is the right to disagree with the union’s position when it is in dispute with the employer and to go into work. 

The Bill will require unions to supervise picketing. The main requirement is to appoint a picket supervisor. That provision is in the code of practice on picketing, which states: 

“Wherever picketing is ‘official’ (i.e. organised by a trade union), an experienced person, preferably a trade union official who represents those picketing, should always be in charge of the picket line.” 

The code also states that picket organisers should ensure that 

“the pickets understand the law and are aware of the provisions of this Code, and that the picketing is conducted peacefully and lawfully.” 

That provision has been in the code of practice for more than 20 years, and no representation has ever been made that expecting people to abide by it represents an

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infringement of their freedom. The code provides further detailed guidance on the functions of the picket supervisor that, if followed, should result in peaceful picketing. 

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth and his hon. Friends have said that unions already adhere to the code of practice on picketing, and we have always agreed with that point—indeed, the consultation made that clear—but it does not always happen. For example, Transport for London told the Carr report: 

“Conduct on the picket line towards employees not participating in industrial action can be aggressive. The word ‘scab’ is often used. Frequently we have seen swearing and shouting directed at an individual”. 

Such behaviour is just not excusable. The picket supervisor therefore plays an important role in ensuring that pickets understand that such behaviour is not in accordance with peaceful picketing. 

Jo Stevens:  Can the Minister tell us whether any arrests were made in that TfL example? 

Nick Boles:  I do not have that information to hand, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady, and obviously to copy in the rest of the Committee, on that question. 

The appointment of a picket supervisor comes from the code; it is not new. The other provisions in the code will continue to guide the picket supervisor and the pickets to ensure that the conduct of picketing is peaceful. Where the picketing is peaceful, the union’s statutory immunity will not be compromised. I make it clear that an individual who breaks the law on the picket line is responsible for their own actions—the union is not responsible—but it is important that we take steps to ensure that picketing activity does not resort to intimidation in order to obtain support for a dispute. 

The amendment would instead limit the appointment of a picket supervisor only to picketing that is organised directly by a union. Surely there should be no distinction between whether the picketing is organised or supported by a union. The law should apply to all picketing, without exception. The amendment would undermine the intended purpose of this clause by allowing a union to encourage picketing activity among its members without the supervision that I believe is necessary for the reasons I have set out. 

The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question on whether the clause will prevent a union from expressing, online or somewhere else, solidarity in general terms with industrial action conducted elsewhere in the country, possibly by another union at an employer where the union expressing solidarity is not involved. The answer, of course, is no—that is freedom of speech—but where a union is encouraging picketing activity among its members without supervision, the application of this clause will be necessary. I hope that he will withdraw his amendment. 

Stephen Doughty:  We will discuss some of the other issues on this subject in detail when we consider the following groups of amendments. I appreciate the Minister’s clarification on the specific question that amendment 26 seeks to address. 

There is a fundamental problem here, and I hope the Minister will elaborate on it in his further comments. What evidence base is he using when he talks about

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these examples of intimidation? No Opposition Member condones intimidation or other such activities—indeed, people carrying out such activities should be prosecuted under existing laws—but what percentage of overall picketing activity in the past year or five years does he believe has resulted in such activity? My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central made a good point, and we have also heard a good point on the dispute between the London fire brigade and the FBU. The commissioner could not give us facts on whether FBU members had been arrested or prosecuted, but I understand that an agency worker was in fact arrested for potentially violent actions towards an FBU member. There is a big problem with the way in which this issue has been characterised. 

The Royal College of Midwives was clear on the implications of this clause and the associated provisions: 

“We believe the intention is to frighten and confuse midwives from exercising their right to protest for fear that they will make a simple mistake and be prosecuted.” 

I am glad for the Minister’s clarifications, but we need to consider the overall impact of this clause and the related provisions. 

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. 

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.  

Chris Stephens:  I beg to move amendment 104, in clause 9, page 5, leave out lines 1 to 13 and insert— 

‘(3) A picket supervisor is required to show a constable a letter of authorisation only if

(a) the constable provides documentary evidence that he or she is a constable;

(b) the constable provides his or her name, and the name of the police station to which he or she is attached; and

(c) the constable explains the reasons for the request to see the letter of authorisation.

(4) If a picket supervisor complies with a constable’s request to produce a letter of authorisation, the police officer shall provide the picket supervisor with a written record of the request, the reasons for it, and an acknowledgment that the request was complied with.

(5) If a picket supervisor fails to comply with a constable’s request to produce a letter of authorisation, the police officer shall provide the picket supervisor with a written record of the request, the reasons for it, and an acknowledgment that the request was not complied with.

(6) Information about the identity of a picket supervisor and any information relating to the production of a letter of authorisation shall be retained by the police only for the purposes of giving evidence in legal proceedings directly related to the picketing to which it is connected.

(7) For the avoidance of doubt neither a member of the public nor an employer shall be entitled to request a picket supervisor to produce a letter of authorisation.”.

The Chair:  With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: 

Amendment 28, in clause 9, page 5, line 5, leave out “police” and insert “Chief Constable”. 

The amendment would ensure there is a single, senior contact within the police force for communicating information about picketing.

Amendment 29, in clause 9, page 5, line 7, leave out paragraph (b). 

Chris Stephens:  It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. 

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This is a bad Bill, and clause 9 is a bad clause. Some of the difficulty that many hon. Members have had with the Bill has been over whether to oppose it totally or try to amend it. The fact that Amnesty, Liberty and the Blacklist Support Group have major concerns about infringements of civil liberties, and their consequences, has already been mentioned. Amendment 104 is intended to make things a little clearer to the police and the trade unions. 

First, we want to remove the words “any other person” from the clause, and we believe that there will be serious consequences if that is not done. It is not clear who that other person is. It could be anyone; but who would it be? It would not be a friend of the trade union movement, that is for sure. It would not be a nice, cheerful person who supported the trade union movement. It would not be George and Zippy from “Rainbow”, Rod, Jane and Freddy or even—perhaps more appropriately—Bungle. It would probably be someone with the personality of the Lannister family in “Game of Thrones”—anyone who watches that programme will understand where they would come from politically—or perhaps Biff Tannen from “Back to the Future”, which was mentioned at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. 

I am using humour; but things could be somewhat more sinister. The other person wanting to know the information might, for example, be a member of a fascist organisation—of one of the organisations that we know share the names of trade unionists and other people on websites. A friend of mine, Iain Titherington, who is a constituent of the shadow Minister, has appeared on a website, Redwatch, for his trade union activity and for being a secretary of Searchlight Cymru. The provision is designed to target people. 

We believe that giving employers details of picketing would lead to more blacklisting. We know from recent court cases that employers are still being taken to court over such serious issues. We heard from Dave Smith of the Blacklist Support Group about the possible consequences for an individual who is put on a blacklist. 

Professor Keith Ewing’s written submission to the Committee contained important remarks on the principles of liberty in relation to the clause: 

“It is a fundamental principle of law in this country that people are free to go about their business without being stopped by the police, unless they are suspected of having committed an offence, in which case they may be arrested. Indeed so important is this principle that it was regarded as a ‘constitutional’ principle by a Scottish court. At common law, the police have no right to stop, detain or search individuals, though there are a number of statutes that provide clear exceptions to this.” 

The evidence went on: 

“It is important fully to comprehend what is being proposed by the Trade Union Bill (clause 9), quite apart from the legitimate concern about armbands, badges and the like: A picket supervisor engaged in lawful activity (indeed in Convention protected activity) may be required by a police constable (whether or not in uniform) to produce a written document (the letter of authorisation); It will be necessary for this purpose for the police officer to stop and detain the individual, for as long as it takes for an exchange to take place…The demand may be made by the police officer even though the individual in question has not committed a criminal offence, and is not suspected of having committed an offence. 

Failure to provide the letter of authorisation is not an offence, but there is no right on the part of the supervisor to ignore the constable’s demand, meet it with a testy reprove, and move on.

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This is because failure to provide the letter of authorisation will have legal consequences, in the sense that the picketing may thus be rendered unlawful and actionable at the suit of the employer.” 

Professor Ewing continued: 

“Moreover, it is striking that there are no formalities or safeguards to be complied with when the demand is made to see a letter of authorisation. This contrasts with the stop and search powers in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Terrorism Act 2000. In these cases the police officer may be required to provide…documentary evidence that he or she is a constable, if the latter is not in uniform; his or her name and the name of the police station to which he or she is attached; the object of the proposed search; the reasons for using the power; and a record of the search after it has taken place. An individual stopped while engaged in lawful and Convention protected activities might reasonably expect to have at least the same level of procedural courtesy as someone stopped while suspected of criminal or terrorist-related activities.” 

12.15 pm 

We believe that our amendment would improve the clause. We therefore ask the Government to respond to it. I look forward to the Minister’s feedback. 

Stephen Doughty:  The hon. Gentleman is doing an excellent job as a member of the Night’s Watch, because clearly winter is coming for the trade union movement; that is very much what the Bill is about. I support many of the arguments that he has advanced about the implications in relation to policing around pickets. Were he to press amendment 104 to a vote, he would gain our support, because as he has said, unions are more than willing, as things stand, to co-operate with the police during picketing activities, but if the clause is passed as drafted, there will be many vulnerabilities—for example, in relation to whether people are able to show the letter of authorisation; they may have misplaced or lost it. These are very significant legal changes, and the amendment is straightforward. Essentially, it is asking police officers to follow, when asking to see a letter of authorisation, basic formal processes that simply mirror the Police and Criminal Evidence Act guidelines, so it would certainly enjoy our support. 

Let me speak to our amendments 28 and 29. Amendment 28 would require trade unions to inform the chief constable of the identity of picket officers, rather than, as the Bill states, the police more generally. That is because it is unclear at the moment whom the trade union would be expected to inform under the Bill and it is excessive and unjustified that trade unions should be legally required to inform the police more generally of the picket supervisor’s name and contact details, which could deter responsible individuals who might otherwise have been willing from volunteering to co-ordinate pickets. 

Worryingly, there could be risks for the police in being expected to compile and retain information about trade union activists. That brings into consideration the concerns expressed about blacklisting. It was important that we heard what the police representatives had to say. The police do not want to be put in the middle of this. They do not want to be in the invidious position of being expected to enforce and interfere in this way as an arm of the state when their role is to police by consent and act in a neutral way to ensure that all the individuals’ rights are respected. I certainly believe that the clause would result in excessive monitoring of union activities

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and is likely to breach trade union members’ rights to privacy as protected by article 8 of the European convention on human rights. 

Those are not idle concerns. They have been resoundingly explored, particularly by UCATT in the construction sector, but also by others, who have shown what has happened in the past in relation to blacklisting. I would therefore like to understand from the Minister when he responds to the amendments why the Bill is drafted such that it has this very general definition of “the police”. Does he not accept that there are serious implications not only for the police but for those attempting to comply with the law if it remains in that general state? 

Amendment 29 would remove the requirement on unions or the picket supervisor to inform the police of where the picketing will be taking place. The reason for that is not that we do not believe that people should know where picketing is going to take place, but because the 1992 Act already provides that picketing must take place 

“at or near the place of work”. 

That is a pretty specific definition; it is pretty clear. And why would pickets want to be occupying a place not outside the workplace where the dispute is taking place anyway? I believe that the additional requirement is unnecessary and there is a risk that unscrupulous employers will mount legal challenges if the trade union does not provide a very specific, accurate location or if the picket has to move a short distance. I can foresee that if a picket had to move from one location to another because of inclement weather, or to ensure access along a road or so on—the picket is trying to be reasonable, comply and do things sensibly—an employer acting in a vexatious manner might mount an injunction or challenge because the exact location was not specified as required in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. 

Ian Mearns:  The Minister said in his intervention that many of the suggestions in the consultation do not appear in the Bill, but does my hon. Friend share my concern that, even so, they could come forward subsequently as regulations? 

Stephen Doughty:  Indeed, I do share that concern, because, as we have seen, the Government have not published the regulations in respect to the Bill and they have not published the consultation responses. It is clear that they are trying to bring about much of this in as much darkness as possible. That is of great concern to all those who will be affected. 

In conclusion, I re-emphasise that we will be happy to support the hon. Member for Glasgow South West should he seek to press his amendment. 

Nick Boles:  Before I move on to the detail of the amendments, I will highlight again that the main requirements of the clause relate to provisions that are already in the code of practice on picketing, that they have been in that code since 1992 and that almost all unions since then have seemed to be perfectly happy to abide by them. In relation to police contact, the code says: 

“Whether a picket is “official” or “unofficial”, an organiser of pickets should maintain close contact with the police…In particular the organiser and the pickets should seek directions from the

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police on the number of people who should be present on the picket line at any one time and on where they should stand in order to avoid obstructing the highway.” 

The code goes on to say: 

“He should have a letter of authority from his union which he can show to the police officers or to the people who want to cross the picket line.” 

Obviously it was drafted when there was less recognition of the possibility of a female picket supervisor. We might want to amend that in future. 

Jo Stevens:  Will the Minister give way? 

Nick Boles:  I want to make a little more of my argument, but of course I will be happy to take the hon. Lady’s intervention in a bit. 

I turn first to amendment 28. To require in law that a picket supervisor contacts a senior-ranked police officer for this type of issue would be novel. I can find no precedent for such an approach. I am concerned about the potential practical difficulties for a picket supervisor being required to make contact with such a senior-ranking police officer as a chief constable, especially given that the purpose of the requirement to inform the police is so that they know which individual to contact in the event that a problem arises on the picket. That might be, for example, if the picket supervisor is absent from the picket at exactly such a moment. 

There are only about 45 chief constables in Great Britain and they each have a wide portfolio of responsibilities. A picket supervisor may well not be able to contact a chief constable and, even if he or she did, the chief constable may not be able to respond quickly enough in such a scenario. That in turn could lead to problems for the union: for example, uncertainty as to whether a chief constable had indeed been informed could lead to doubt about whether the picketing can proceed and to legal challenge. That is why there is a broader reference to inform the police in the clause. That is more flexible. It will meet the objective and ensure that there is minimal delay for all concerned while still fulfilling data protection requirements. It is also important to recognise that that reflects the language of the code, which, to our knowledge, has not caused any problems. 

There has been some commentary in the media about data protection concerns. The police are bound by the Data Protection Act 1998, including the principle that personal data must be processed fairly and lawfully. Any concern that the police have mishandled such data can be brought before the Independent Police Complaints Commission for its consideration. Complaints on data handling can also be brought to the Information Commissioner. 

Jo Stevens:  I do not accept that the Government are simply transposing the existing code of practice provisions into legislation. Even if I did accept that point, why is primary legislation necessary if, as the Minister suggests, the code of practice does not cause any problems and everybody is happy with it? 

Nick Boles:  I do accept that this is a matter of legitimate debate, but there are all sorts of laws on the statute book that almost all citizens in the country

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abide by almost all the time, and that does not mean that we do not think those laws should be on the statute book. Laws are there not just to deal with the general behaviour of most people, but to deal with the extreme behaviour of a very small number of people in very rare circumstances. It is because most unions have abided by these provisions so happily and successfully that we feel it is reasonable to expect all unions in all strikes to abide by them. I fail to see that this is an egregious step. When we were drafting the Bill, I was clear to my officials that I did not want to go further than the existing code. I believe we have satisfied that in the Bill, so I fail to see the hon. Lady’s concern. 

Ian Mearns:  Surely the sort of extreme behaviour in exceptional circumstances that the Minister is talking about is already covered by aspects of the criminal law. 

Nick Boles:  That is certainly true of a whole range of criminal offences, but it is perfectly reasonable for us to want to root out the specific failure in some cases—I accept they are rare—to inform the police of when pickets are going to happen and whom the supervisor is, and to ensure that the supervisor is readily contactable. It does not infringe the liberty of anyone who currently accepts all these provisions and has done since 1992. 

Ian Mearns:  Will the Minister give way? 

Jo Stevens  rose—  

Nick Boles:  I am just going to move on, because we are never going to agree on this issue. I have stated my argument, and Opposition Members have stated their argument. 

Let me move on to amendment 29 and the proposal of the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth to remove the requirement to inform the police where picketing is to take place. Knowing the location of where picketing is to take place will help the police ensure that sufficient resources are available in the event of problems arising on the picket line. It will help the police to respond quickly and resolve any problems. This is not new. The code of practice on picketing sets out that a picketing organiser should establish advance consultation with the police and—I have already directly quoted from it—seek directions on where they should stand to avoid obstructions of the highway. The combined effect of those provisions is that the police will know where picketing will take place. 

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is concerned that such advance notification could restrict the right to assemble. I assure the Committee that the Government fully recognise the right to assemble, but we also recognise other people’s freedom and their right to go about their business and move freely. Such rights need to be balanced, and the provision in clause 9 achieves that balance. 

Amendment 104 seeks to amend the effect of clause 9 in a number of different ways, which I will address in turn. The purpose of clause 9 is to require union supervision of picketing. The appointment of a picket supervisor is the main mechanism by which that is to be achieved. The picket supervisor should rightly be a

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trade union official or a member of the union who is familiar with the union’s approach and the reasons for the industrial dispute with the employer. 

The amendment would remove the clarity that the picket supervisor should be an official or a member of the union. It would have the effect of removing the provision that the picket supervisor to be appointed must be an official or trade union member who is familiar with the code of practice on picketing. This important point came up earlier in the debate, and I say again that the code sets out practical and pertinent guidance to ensure that picketing is conducted peacefully and lawfully. A picket supervisor’s familiarity with the code represents sensible and practical preparation for someone about to undertake the role of picket supervisor. 

 

The amendment would further remove the requirement to inform the police of the picket supervisor’s name and contact details, and of where the picketing will take place. I have already referred to the importance of the police’s understanding of whom to contact, particularly if a problem arises on the picket line. Knowing where the picketing will take place will enable the police to attend quickly, should they need to. The shadow Minister made a good, sensible argument about the strain on police resources; indeed, that was reflected in the evidence given to the Committee. I would simply say that the adherence to these very measured and sensible provisions—about having a picket supervisor who knows what the code of picketing says and who has told the police his mobile phone number and where the picket is going to be—is what will minimise the need to call on police resources. If everything is there quickly and easily in the event that a problem arises, the need for the police to supervise, unless there is a problem, is removed. 

12.30 pm 

Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab):  Would the Minister expect that information to be given to the police in writing, or by electronic means? 

Nick Boles:  That is a very good question. I imagine that the picket supervisor could communicate with the police in whatever form they wanted. I promise to check that point. 

Amendment 104 further removes from the clause the requirement for the union to issue the picket supervisor with a letter of authorisation. It also removes the requirement to show that to a constable or any other person who reasonably asks for it. As I have already mentioned, the letter of authorisation relates to the picket so that it is clear that the picket is lawful. The removal of the letter of authorisation would create uncertainty about whether the picket has been authorised by the union. It would also make it more difficult for the union to show that it has complied with the requirement to appoint a supervisor. 

The other substance of the amendment proposes to insert new requirements for the constable in relation to any entitlement to see the letter of authorisation. It sets out that the constable would need to provide their personal details, to which police station they are attached, the reasons to see the letter of authorisation and a written record whether the request had been complied with. 

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Our intention in clause 9 is that this letter authorises the picket, not the picket supervisor. Therefore, it does not need to contain the name and personal details of the picket supervisor. I would like to reflect again on whether that is articulated as clearly as it could be in the Bill. 

The police will already have been informed of the name and contact of the picket supervisor so that they are able to respond quickly should a problem occur. All uniformed police officers carry a warrant card as proof of identification and authority. Those generally include a photograph of the holder as well as the holder’s name, rank, warrant number and a holographic emblem to mark authenticity. A requirement for a written record would appear an additional and unnecessary burden when considering this in relation to a letter of authorisation for a picket. 

I am aware that the entitlement to see the letter of authorisation by any person who reasonably requests it has caused some concern. I am grateful for the insights provided by hon. Members and will reflect on those further. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Glasgow South West to withdraw the amendment. 

Chris Stephens:  I agree with the shadow Minister that winter is coming. The Minister has not addressed issues relating to blacklisting and, like the hon. Member for Cardiff Central, I am very concerned about the approach that occurs in guidance and, whether we agree or not that it is interlocked, it will have other consequences for legal proceedings. I do not believe the Minister has addressed the concerns and consequences of that and feel obliged to press for a Division. 

Question put, that the amendment be made. 

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9. 

Division No. 18 ]  

AYES

Cameron, Dr Lisa   

Doughty, Stephen   

Elliott, Julie   

Mearns, Ian   

Morden, Jessica   

Stephens, Chris   

Stevens, Jo   

NOES

Argar, Edward   

Barclay, Stephen   

Boles, Nick   

Cartlidge, James   

Ghani, Nusrat   

Howell, John   

Kennedy, Seema   

Morris, Anne Marie   

Prentis, Victoria   

Question accordingly negatived .  

Stephen Doughty:  I beg to move amendment 27, in clause 9, page 5, and line 2, leave out from “union” to the end of line 3. 

The Chair:  With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: 

Amendment 30, in clause 9, page 5, line 11, leave out subsection (6). 

Amendment 31, in clause 9, page 5, line 14, leave out subsection (7) and insert— 

‘(7) A picket supervisor must take reasonable steps to be contactable by the union and the police, and be able to attend in person given reasonable notice.”.

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Amendment 32, in clause 9, page 5, line 14, leave out subsection (7). 

Amendment 33, in clause 9, page 5, line 18, leave out subsection (8). 

The amendment would remove the requirement for the picket supervisor to wear identification.

Stephen Doughty:  I detect a chink of summer in the Minister’s comments, particularly on what he said about reflection and the interesting revelation that people could communicate with the police electronically. 

Nick Boles:  I just thought that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central asked such a cunning question. I am sure she will be delighted to have it confirmed that the picket supervisor can inform the police by any means of written communication. 

Stephen Doughty:  That is indeed revealing. I hope that sets a precedent for discussions we might have in due course. [ Interruption. ] Let us see where we go. Perhaps we can persuade the Minister. We will need more clever questions. 

Chris Stephens:  I assume the Minister believes that emails in relation to picketing will be safe and secure. 

Stephen Doughty:  Perhaps the Minister would like to confirm that in his remarks. Before we discuss the amendments, I want to reiterate the point at the heart of the debate. As the Minister says, we already have the picketing code, which many people comply with, and we have been clear that many of the potential offences that the Minister seeks to avoid are already covered in law. My fear is—I genuinely ask the Minister to reflect on this—that whatever the Government’s intentions are, the reality is that others will seek to exploit parts of the Bill as drafted to make the rights of others illusory. 

We heard from Liberty in the oral evidence sessions that many aspects could be used by others to try to bring injunctions and proceedings. Ultimately—this goes back to our debate on the gagging law—many are frightened about potential non-compliance with the law. The RCM made that clear: 

“We believe the intention is to frighten and confuse midwives from exercising their right to protest for fear that they will make a simple mistake and be prosecuted.” 

That is the fear of many people who are not experts in trade union law and the existing legal provisions. Let us remember that the overwhelming majority of those who engage in such activities would never contemplate the intimidation or other unsavoury activities that the Minister outlined. 

Amendment 27 would remove the requirement that the picketing supervisor must be a person familiar with the provisions of the code of practice on picketing. It is not that I hope that people are not reading and understanding it, but I believe that that requirement is excessive and creates a risk that unions could again be exposed to legal challenges because a picket supervisor could not answer a random question about the code of practice even though the picket activities they were supervising were peaceful and otherwise lawful. I would appreciate clarity from the Minister about the intention behind this measure, because it could be misused by those who would seek to make rights illusory. 

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Amendment 30 is on the letter of authorisation. It would remove the requirement on picket supervisors to show their letter of authorisation to constables who ask to see it. We have discussed that already, but I have concerns that the interaction between a police officer—a “constable” as defined in the Bill—and an individual could form the basis of a future legal challenge by the employer and that that could again put the police in an invidious position. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West covered the circumstances in which others could demand to see the letter. Fascist organisations or others could seek to use potential loopholes in the Bill to cause frustration to those going about exercising their rights reasonably. 

Amendments 31 and 32 are important. Proposed new section 220A(7) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 will place a duty on picket supervisors to be either constantly present at a picket or able to attend at short notice. The Opposition believe that that would place an onerous responsibility on picket organisers, especially when pickets are scheduled to take place overnight as well as during the day, so the amendments would remove that requirement. Here again there is potential for a really unreasonable requirement to be placed on those who otherwise seek very much to comply with the spirit and intent of the existing code of practice and this law if it is to be enacted. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on those points. 

Nick Boles:  I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to explain how the code of practice works and why we think it is appropriate to ask for familiarity with it. The code has been in place since 1992. It sets out the principles and the legal requirements that underpin picketing, and it sets out guidance that, if followed, will mean that the picketing will be considered peaceful. To my knowledge, these provisions have not given rise to concern for the past 20 years or so. 

The Bill requires the picketing supervisor to be familiar with the code. In the Government’s view, familiarity with the code represents sensible and practical preparation for someone about to undertake the role of picket supervisor. However, familiarity does not mean an ability to quote verbatim every single provision of the code; it means a broad familiarity with the provisions of the code and the reasonable requirements it places. The code itself is not onerous. It has not given unions cause for concern, so we believe that a supervisor’s familiarity with it is helpful and supportive of the shared aim of peaceful picketing. 

Let me move on to amendment 30. As I said, clause 9 introduces the statutory requirement to appoint a picket supervisor and to issue that person with a letter of authorisation so it is clear that the picket is lawful. Removing that requirement, as proposed by the hon. Gentleman, would make it more difficult for unions to show that they have complied with the requirement to appoint a supervisor. It may also cause confusion on the picket line about whether the picket supervisor has indeed been appointed and whether the picket is legal. 

We are aware of the sensitivities around union membership. I would like to underline the fact that the entitlement for any other person to be shown the letter

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is currently restricted to those with reasonable cause, and in my view that arguably means the employer at whose workplace the picketing will take place. It would be very difficult for a random passer-by to show reasonable entitlement. However, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s explanation. I will reflect on the concerns raised, and I will return to this issue on Report. 

Ian Mearns:  How would a picketing supervisor in possession of such a letter know who is a random passer-by and who is a legitimate representative of the employer, unless they are carrying some sort of letter to say they are so? 

Nick Boles:  As I have indicated, we will return to this issue on Report after reflecting on it. That is a very helpful contribution, and I will ensure our reflections take it into account. 

Amendment 31 is on the requirement for the picket supervisor to be present or able to attend at short notice, and to be readily contactable. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth proposes a new text that supplies a reasonable test of those requirements and removes the phrase 

“While the picketing is taking place”. 

Let me explain how the provision should work in practice. The current legal text balances a clear statutory requirement with allowing sufficient flexibility for it to work in the real world. It does that by enabling the picket supervisor to be absent, provided that he or she is able to attend at short notice, which is why it is linked to the requirement for the picket supervisor to be readily contactable by the union or the police. The effect of these measures is that the picket supervisor does not need to be present at all times. In fact, they positively enable the picket supervisor to be absent, provided they are able to attend at short notice if necessary. 

I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman’s amendment would result in the requirement becoming legally less clear. A lack of legal clarity will likely result in more litigation and higher legal costs, most probably for unions. 

Stephen Doughty:  I appreciate the Minister’s very helpful clarification. For the record, can he state what he believes short notice would mean, in general terms? Would the picket supervisors have to turn up within 15 minutes, or would they have a couple of hours for travel if, for example, they had gone home for the night and had to come back? We need to recognise the practicalities. 

Nick Boles:  What I might do is move on to amendment 32 and come back to that point after I have taken a bit of in-flight advice. 

Amendment 32 would entirely remove the requirement for the picket supervisor to be present or readily contactable. It is important that one or other of those positions is the case, because the picket supervisor will act as the main point of contact to ensure picketing remains peaceful. The Government want to tackle the intimidation of non-striking workers, and the appointment of a picket supervisor to oversee picketing is an entirely appropriate and proportionate way of ensuring that unacceptable behaviour on a picket line does not occur.

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It will ensure consistency in the way picketing is conducted, and ensure that picketing remains peaceful, as currently required by law. Removal of the requirement for the picket supervisor’s presence or their ability to be contacted to return would render the requirement for union supervision ineffective. 

I move on to amendment 33, while I still wait for inflight advice. 

12.45 pm 

Ian Mearns:  Can I be of assistance to the Minister? 

Nick Boles:  I am always happy to take assistance from the hon. Gentleman. I know that he means it with a generous heart. 

Ian Mearns:  May I take the Minister back to the information he gave the shadow Minister about using “any means” to communicate the intention to picket to the appropriate authorities? I can imagine the scenario—and the Minister might want to think about ruling some of this out—where an ingenious trade unionist or picket supervisor uses semaphore, Morse code by means of an Aldis lamp, invisible ink on best vellum, Native American smoke signals, or even, as I have witnessed on a Remploy picket line of GMB workers, British Sign Language. It may well be that “any means” is not appropriate; it will have to be a means that the appropriate authority can understand. 

Nick Boles:  I thank the hon. Gentleman. I think I did make it clear that it needs to be any means in writing, though his last example provides an interesting question. Nevertheless, the position would be any means in writing. 

I was waiting for in-flight advice and I fear that the hon. Gentleman is not going to be any more satisfied than I am by the advice that I have received, which suggests that short notice means that the picket supervisor needs to be there promptly to deal with issues should they arise. The real point is whether we are opening up to greater legal challenge than is currently the case. Therefore, the question is, does “short” provide more or less clarity than “reasonable”? My argument is that “reasonable” is more capable of multiple interpretations, and therefore debate, challenge and legal costs, than “short”, which does have a common meaning in the English language that we all understand. Of course, it will inevitably depend on the circumstances and the particular situation of the picket. If it is held in the middle of the night, “short” would probably be interpreted differently from how it would be if held during working hours. I think it is better to stick with “short” rather than move to “reasonable”. 

Finally, because I am worried that I am taking too long, Sir Alan, I move on to amendment 33. Clause 9 requires the picket supervisor to be easily identifiable as such to the pickets, the employer and other workers. It presents clear, tangible confirmation that the union has complied with the picketing supervision requirements and provides a clear point of contact on the picket line. Therefore, it creates confidence that there is someone who is familiar with the code and who supervises the picket so that it is conducted peacefully. 

Wearing a badge or another identifiable item of clothing will balance our objective to ensure that picketing can take place in accordance with the right to assemble,

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while providing confidence for non-striking workers to be able to go into work. That balance is what is important here. 

I point out that the code suggests that all people on the picket should have some kind of badge or identifiable piece of clothing. That is not something we have had objections to over the years, but we feel it would not be reasonable to require that in statute of everyone. Given the picket supervisor’s particular function and responsibilities, it seems reasonable to require that. They do not have wear armbands. A badge, a baseball cap—I am sure we can think of many ways for people to identify themselves as picket supervisors. 

Stephen Doughty:  Before the Minister concludes, I hope he understands the serious concerns around this and the potential implications, and why it has been a matter of contention, given the historical persecution of trade unionists. It would be helpful in relation to all these amendments if he was clear. He has indicated this broadly in his remarks, but will he be clear that nothing that the Government propose to do here is intended to serve as a litigator’s charter for people who would not reasonably be required to be a party to any of these disputes? I hope he is reflective and considers some of the matters, but would he please be crystal clear for the record, because it will be important for how the Government’s intent is considered in future? 

Nick Boles:  I am happy to offer the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. We are very pleased that most unions in most cases are happy to abide by the provisions of the picketing code. We simply want to make it clear that the code should be abided by in those few local situations, of which the unions perhaps do not have knowledge, where it is not. We certainly do not want to be opening up greater opportunity to challenge legitimate strikes or industrial action that have been arrived at through legitimate ballots. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment. 

Stephen Doughty:  I appreciate the Minister’s comments and am glad that he appears to be in a reflective mood. I am content to withdraw the amendment, but I will do so on the basis that the Minister and the Department will consider the matter carefully. If additional clarification can be provided on the face of the Bill, on Report or elsewhere, that would be welcome. Otherwise, Opposition Members or our colleagues in the other place may want to return to the matter. The legislation needs to be crystal clear. This part of the Bill has some serious implications, and they must be clear in law. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. 

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.  

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill. 

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 7. 

Division No. 19 ]  

AYES

Argar, Edward   

Barclay, Stephen   

Boles, Nick   

Cartlidge, James   

Ghani, Nusrat   

Howell, John   

Kennedy, Seema   

Morris, Anne Marie   

Prentis, Victoria   

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NOES

Cameron, Dr Lisa   

Doughty, Stephen   

Elliott, Julie   

Mearns, Ian   

Morden, Jessica   

Stephens, Chris   

Stevens, Jo   

Question accordingly agreed to.  

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Clause 10 

Union’s annual return to include details of political expenditure 

Stephen Doughty:  I beg to move amendment 34, in clause 10, page 5, line 39, leave out 

“has expired under subsection (2) or”. 

The Chair:  With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 35, in clause 10, page 5, line 43, leave out from “unless” to the end of line 5 on page 6 and insert “it has been renewed”. 

The amendment would define an opt-in notice as expired if on its expiry date it had not been renewed.

Stephen Doughty:  We are starting to make some progress through some meaty issues. Clause 10 deals with the Government’s extensive proposals around political funding and how unions operate. We discussed such matters at length on Second Reading. We heard significant evidence from the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation and from several unions that contribute to and maintain political funds. Although there was some japery from Government Members during that evidence session, it is important to understand the historical significance of the Government’s proposals, which go well beyond what even previous Conservative Administrations have considered and well beyond the bounds of cross-party consensus on political funding. The existing legislation governing trade unions that want to contribute to political parties or engage in certain political activities is clear, rigid and tough, and rightly so. The Opposition would not want it any other way and neither would the trade unions or the trade union members with whom I have spoken or who have given evidence. 

As defined by section 72 of the 1992 Act, a trade union wishing to undertake such activities must establish a political fund. Before doing so, trade unions are legally required to ballot their members to ask, through a political fund resolution, whether they agree to the union maintaining a political fund. Trade unions are also required to ballot their members every 10 years to determine whether the trade union should retain the political fund. Union members currently have the right to opt out from their subscriptions being used for political fund purposes. Let us be clear that that relates not only to union subscriptions or affiliations to the Labour party, but to all the activities covered by political funds. Members can opt out at any time. It is important that the Committee understands that, because the idea that unions are somehow giving this money away with members having no democratic role is simply not the case. 

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The Government’s proposals in clause 10, however, replace that arrangement with a new requirement on union members to opt in every five years if they agree to their subscriptions being partly used to fund political parties or, as could be encompassed by the Bill, party political campaigns. Union members will retain the right to opt out from paying into the political fund at any point. 

The Minister said earlier that I was potentially pre-empting comments that he was going to make, and I might do so again now. He might try to dress up the clause as an attempt to bring things into line with the situation in Northern Ireland, but it is important for the Committee to understand that it goes beyond the current practice there, which requires union members to agree to paying into the political fund only once. They are not required to renew their opt-in. 

The Minister might also try to argue that the clause is about levelling the playing field with the duties that apply to companies that make political donations, but, again, it goes well beyond that. Part 14 of the Companies Act 2006 requires companies to get the authorisation of a shareholder resolution before making political donations of £5,000 or more. However, shareholders do not have a right to opt out of company political expenditure, and nor is there an opting-in arrangement. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I ask again: what is the Government’s real intention? Committee members should be left in no doubt that the purpose of requiring trade union members to opt in to political funds as required by the clause is simply a nakedly partisan attack aimed at damaging the finances of the Labour party. Such a move is designed to ensure the inevitable by gifting the Conservative party an ever greater financial advantage than is already the case. 

Chris Stephens:  I would argue that it is more sinister than that. Does the shadow Minister agree that the clause is also about a trade union’s capacity to use its political fund for general campaigning? 

Stephen Doughty:  Indeed, I believe that to be the case. I have heard some clear evidence from unions that maintain political funds and, although affiliated to the Labour party, undertake other activities, as well as from those that are not affiliated to the Labour party but maintain political funds. The Government have already taken forward extensive regulation relating to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the gagging Act and so on. A lot of unions believe that activities will fall under those provisions and are worried about how they will comply. 

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con):  Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something? He seems fearful that the clause will result in less funding for the Labour party, but if that is the case, there must be people who are currently donating through this mechanism but do not want to. 

Stephen Doughty:  It certainly will lead to less money for the Labour party—that is very clear—but not because people do not want to give money. Union money is some of the most transparent and openly gifted in politics. Were I to discuss the funding of the Conservative

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party at length, I am sure you would rule that out of order, Sir Alan, but it well merits a debate on the Floor of the House. If I remember correctly, in the previous Parliament, the former Member for Banbury could not read out his entire Register of Members’ Financial Interests because it would have taken him longer than the 10 minutes he was allotted. 

The fact is that the Government are seeking to frustrate the genuine giving of money to political funds, some of which is then used to contribute to the Labour party. The reality is that people lead busy lives or, for example, are part of a widely dispersed workforce, as USDAW made clear to me. The fact that the transitional period to comply with one of the most major changes in trade union law for generations is only three months underlines the Government’s true intentions. 

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) was absolutely right to raise this issue with the Prime Minister while she was acting Leader of the Opposition. She asked him to commit not to go ahead with these changes unless there was cross-party agreement. Is the Minister prepared to get to his feet and withdraw these measures and engage in genuine cross-party talks about the funding of party politics? I suspect not. 

It is not acceptable for the Prime Minister to be curbing funds given transparently to the Labour party by hard-working people throughout the country while turning a blind eye to donations to the Tories from various corporate sources and hedge funds. If the clause stands part of the Bill unamended and the Bill receives Royal Assent, it will mark the abrupt end of the long-standing consensus in British politics that the Government should not introduce partisan legislation unfairly to disadvantage other political parties. 

As Members will be aware from the oral evidence sessions, in 1948 Winston Churchill cautioned against taking such steps. He said: 

“It has become a well-established custom that matters affecting the interests of rival parties should not be settled by the imposition of the will of one side over the other, but by an agreement reached either between the leaders of the main parties or by conferences under the impartial guidance of Mr. Speaker.”—[Official Report, 16 February 1948; Vol. 447, c. 859.] 

Even Margaret Thatcher, a Prime Minister whose term was defined by her opposition to the trade union movement, considered proposals such as those set out in the Bill to be too extreme. She said: 

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“legislation on this subject, which would affect the funding of the Labour party, would create great unease and should not be entered into lightly.” 

[ Interruption. ] I know you are asking me to come to a conclusion, Sir Alan. I will be there in a matter of moments. She was right. The Bill and the clause are creating great unease, and I find myself agreeing with the person who I suspect spurred the Minister and I into politics in the first place, although of course for very different reasons. In the light of that, we are looking carefully at the SNP’s new clause, which we will come to in due course, and which would put the Churchill convention into the Bill. 

In conclusion, the clause will restrict unions’ right to freedom of association and their ability to engage in political debates, and it will create huge administrative burdens. It is widely known that opt-in processes reduce participation—for example, our approach to auto-enrolment for pensions is based on an opt-out model, given the clear economic evidence. 

Amendments 34 and 35 are probing amendments that can be used to argue that members should not be required to submit repeated opt-ins. I hope the Minister will give us his thoughts on them in due course. 

The Chair:  Before the Committee rises, I repeat that we are only up to clause 10 of 22, and we have a host of important discussions to come. The point of Committee stage is to question parts of the Bill before it goes back to the Floor of the House on Report. There are a lot of important things on the Government and Opposition sides that have to be dealt with. 

Before the next Committee, I want the Whips to talk to each other. It is likely that this Committee will rise early this afternoon because there are a number of votes taking place from 4.30 pm. That restricts the Committee’s time and means that we have only two more sittings next week to deal with the remainder of the Bill, which I am not sure will be satisfactory. I ask the two Whips to meet in consultation with the other Opposition group to see whether we can get a bit of speed, so the questions can be answered as fully as possible. 

1.2 pm 

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).  

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.  

Prepared 23rd October 2015