Trade Union Bill Committee

Written evidence submitted by the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) (TUB 08)

 

1. I am writing on behalf of the WLGA to submit evidence on the Trades Union Bill. The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) represents the 22 local authorities in Wales. The three national park authorities and three fire and rescue authorities are associate members.

2. The WLGA seeks to provide representation to local authorities within an emerging policy framework that satisfies the key priorities of our members and delivers a broad range of services that add value to Welsh Local Government and the communities they serve.

3. The WLGA Council, comprised of the senior Welsh local authority political Leaders considered a report on the Trades Union Bill at its recent meeting on 25th September 2015 and determined to oppose the Bill. Our decision to do so was based on our many years of experience of generally good industrial relations in public services, including those defined as ‘important public services’ within the Bill. We have a long and shared history of working effectively in partnership with our trades unions and a commitment to joint working and joint solutions as being the most effective means of addressing the many challenges within the sector.

4. We have very real concerns that these unnecessary and unjustified proposals, rather than in any way modernising or otherwise improving employee relations as claimed, would in fact create more division and industrial unrest through hardening attitudes and increasing tension between employers and trades unions.

5. In terms of the stated aim of ‘protecting the public’ from the disruption of strike action the actual reality of the modern work place is that the number of days lost to strike action has dropped by over 90% in the last 20 years with action increasingly taking the form of protest action rather than all-out strikes. In terms of local government the sector has delivered a number of years of pay freeze and below-inflation pay rises in recent years with very little industrial unrest or disruption to the public. In view of these facts it is hard to see how the legislation on ballot thresholds can be considered necessary or warranted.

6. With regard to facility time, our experience is that appropriate facility time is vitally necessary for the efficient functioning of a local authority. Change is a constant within local government and there is a need to ensure that the workforce are consulted about and kept abreast of changes affecting them and the way services are delivered. Employees must be afforded the opportunity to participate in the development of solutions to the difficult funding problems that we face. If councils had to consult with and negotiate with employees on an individual basis on all these matters the time resource required would be huge. Facility time enables councils to consult and negotiate with the trades unions officials representing the workforce, and therefore actually saves considerable time and resources. It is therefore essential in our view, and very much in the interests of council tax payers to see it maintained.

7. We also see no reason to outlaw the ‘check off’ system which is not considered problematic by local authorities, and indeed is part of our social partnership approach. The view has been promulgated that this is a ‘huge expense to the tax payer’ but again the facts do not bear this out. In our experience there are already arrangements in place in some authorities where the trades unions are paying for the administrative costs of the system. With the continuing budget cuts more are considering introducing appropriate charges. The trades unions in our experience fully understand that financial difficulties and this is not viewed as problematic. Mandating an appropriate charge would be a reasonable approach but seeking to ban the system is entirely unnecessary and again, unwarranted in our view.

8. We agree that the intimidation of non-striking workers in the course of industrial disputes is completely unacceptable. However, again in our experience this is extremely rare, and if it were to occur there are already sufficient legal and other safeguards in place to deal with it effectively. There is no need to create an additional new criminal offence. There are already a number of existing public order offences, including assault, harassment and trespass which can be used where necessary. Within the local authority we would regard any intimidation of non-striking workers as a serious disciplinary matter and would not hesitate to take action. However it is rare that any issues arise and on the very few occasions of a strike, picketing and other activity is generally peaceful and good-humoured. The unions themselves recognise perfectly well that anything less than appropriate behaviour by one of their number is likely to lose them employee and public support.

9. Finally we do not support repealing the ban on using agency workers to cover for striking employees. Even when we are in dispute with our trades unions we work together to ensure that there are sufficient employees exempted from striking to provide suitable cover for essential services. It is unlikely in any case that we would be able to recruit sufficient suitably qualified and trained agency workers to maintain operations effectively during industrial action. However, hiring such workers as might be available would be very likely to lead to much harder attitudes to essential cover by the trades unions and thus to far greater difficulties in this regard than are currently experienced. We would also question whether Employment Agencies would wish to place people in the position of replacing striking employees or if agency workers themselves would much relish such an assignment. Indeed, we understand that Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), the professional body for recruitment, has said in relation to this aspect of the Bill that they are "not convinced that putting agencies and temporary workers in to the middle of difficult industrial relations situations is a good idea for agencies, workers or their clients." (Kate Shoesmith REC Head of Policy in a recent interview with the BBC).

10. In summary then, we believe that the provisions of this Bill are unnecessary and are likely to be counter-productive in practice. We believe the government should instead focus on positive ways to develop an efficient, engaged and productive public sector workforce and promote a culture of more consultation and ongoing dialogue and engagement with the workforce rather than seek to introduce mechanisms that reflect the industrial relations challenges of a bygone era.

Cllr. Bob Wellington

Leader of the WLGA

October 2015

Prepared 14th October 2015