Trade Union Bill

Written evidence submitted by Councillor Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council (TUB 13)

I’ve attempted to keep my comments to the point but I thought it necessary to raise some of my concerns about the Trade Union Bill, in particular how they relate to industrial relations at Blackpool Council.

Turnout Requirements

1. As leader of Blackpool Council, I consider the increased turnout requirement for industrial action proposed in the bill as unnecessary, arbitrary and overcomplicated. Even in the face of unprecedented cuts to Blackpool Council, the amount of days lost to strike action remains very small – since 2010 there have been just two 1-day strikes involving Blackpool Council staff. It also seems unclear from the wording of the bill what services would be considered ‘important public services’ and whether that would then require multiple ballots for different services even within the council as a single employer, even in the event of a single nationwide dispute such as with the pensions dispute – whereby some council workers can strike on any successful ballot over a 50% turnout threshold but others council workers would require 40% support amongst all those eligible to vote. Such poor definitions suggest that the bill was drafted with specific political objectives in mind as opposed to any consideration relating to the democratic will of workers in any given workplace. Indeed, greater thought about the democratic implications of the Trade Union Bill would have presumably highlighted the fact that the vast majority of Members of Parliament are elected with less than 40% support of those entitled to vote, which no doubt to many members of the public.

Industrial Relations

2. If the Trade Union Bill genuinely seeks to improve the turnout of ballots, it seems unusual that other methods of balloting have not been considered such as electronic balloting. In my experience as a Council Leader I believe this would also have the added benefit of saving time and money during negotiations with unions. The proposals of introducing turnout requirements and re-balloting after 4 months in the Trade Union Bill in my view would have the opposite effect – lengthening and potentially intensifying disputes as unions will be essentially forced to go to greater lengths to mobilise support amongst staff.

3. Other elements of the Trade Union Bill similarly have the potential to entrench positions and hinder a satisfactory conclusion being made between employers and unions. In our experience as a council, industrial action has often been very much limited to a day lost here or there and often it has related to national disputes, for example over pensions. Our internal industrial relations are very good. It is my view that our staff are dedicated to their work and even when the council finds itself on the other side of a dispute to staff, I do not believe that it is a decision that they have taken lightly.

4. Using agency staff in an attempt to break strikes would in my opinion undermine mutual respect and trust between the council and its staff, which has on many occasions helped us avoid industrial action. Particularly in the context of huge local government cuts, an enormous amount of goodwill has been shown by staff in understanding some of the difficult decisions the council has had to make, and indeed their cooperation in managing change in the workplace is paramount. This kind of measure does not sit comfortably with the kind of atmosphere we wish to create in the workplace.

5. Many of our staff in adult and children’s services also spend long periods of time building close relationships with vulnerable people – to put an agency worker into that situation at short notice could well be disturbing for the client and irresponsible towards the agency staff in question. It could also have a longer term impact in undermining the trust between our staff and our clients. Our experience of strike action, is both that many staff members, particularly in these areas, and even those supportive of strike action, have actually attended work anyway because of the sensitive nature of their role and also that unions have cooperated in identifying exemptions to key members of staff. It could well be the case that if we were to begin using agency staff, it could actually have a counter-productive effect of both undermining union cooperation in identifying exemptions and indeed essentially say to those staff supportive of strike action but who have in the past attended work because they are very conscientious about the service they provide, that their work will be covered and so they can take strike action in the knowledge that they will be covered by an agency worker. To abandon laws that has been successfully in place since 1973 and have stood the test of time through periods of far greater industrial turmoil than we see today, with little evidence that the above considerations have been taken into account, seems on a rational level to lack any merit.

6. The measures covering facility time are also a cause for concern. There is a significant amount of evidence from researchers that says that facility time from trade union representatives can minimise disputes by improving communication between employers and staff and by resolving smaller issues before they escalate. I therefore believe the use of facility time for trade union representatives should be a negotiated decision between employers and unions to suit the specific needs of that workplace, rather than something dictated by government.

Regulation of Picketing

7. According to our records, there has not been a single reported incident of any form of violence or intimidation from pickets associated with any industrial action including Blackpool Council workers. Speaking as a Council Leader therefore it seems difficult to come to any conclusion other than that the proposals to further tighten the regulations on pickets are unnecessary and run the risk of criminalising council workers for very minor infringements of what seems to be a draconian set of regulations. Also, I also have concerns about the time that could be wasted policing these additional regulations at a time when police forces are also increasingly stretched themselves because of budget cuts.

Political Donations

8. Forcing union members to opt-in rather than opt-out of union political funds seems to have nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with an attempt to reduce the well-regulated and democratically agreed small donations from millions of workers to the Labour Party, whilst offering no checks whatsoever on the large donations from big business and the wealthy who bankroll the Conservative Party. I believe changes such as this should be agreed through cross-party consensus.

The Role of the Certification Officer

9. It seems difficult to understand what the purpose of allowing what is currently a highly respected, independent post in the Certification Officer to initiate, investigate, make decisions and ultimately punish trade unions over clearly internal constitutional matters such as trade union elections or union mergers, without there even being any complaints raised by any of the trade union’s members. I believe this opens up the office to being bogged down with investigations initiated as the result of spurious complaints by employers or politically motivated members of the public – the extra cost of which will then be apparently carried by trade unions but not employers’ federations such as the CBI. In doing so, I believe this would result in two problems, firstly undermining the cherished independent status that the Certification Officer enjoys and secondly distract the Certification Officer from performing the best possible job in the role we currently understand the post to encompass.

Councillor Simon Blackburn MA

Leader of the Council

October 2015

Prepared 14th October 2015