Trade Union Bill

Written evidence submitted by Sara Ogilvie, Policy Officer, Liberty (TUB 43)

Thank you for inviting me to participate in your Committee’s oral evidence session on the Trade Union Bill on 13 October 2015. During that session you kindly invited the panel to send further written comments. This is a short note to reiterate Liberty’s views on a number of the issues we discussed.

A number of Committee members raised the issue of disruption caused by strikes. Liberty agrees that in some – although certainly not in all – cases strike action will cause inconvenience to the general public. However, we do not agree that this is sufficient justification for the measures in the Bill, which we consider would restrict the right to freedom of association so significantly as to render the right illusory. There are many things in society that cause inconvenience. In human rights terms, the right to freedom of expression often causes the state embarrassment. The right to a fair trial certainly makes it slower and more expensive for the state to prosecute, convict and imprison those who break the law. However, we do not prohibit the exercise of these rights on that basis. Committee members raised in particular the example of difficulties caused by strike action in the transport sector. However commuters in London frequently face similar difficulties getting across the city due to train station closures as a result of Crossrail or due to the development of cycle lanes on Embankment. We accept these inconveniences as a short-lived and ultimately worthwhile irritation rather than action meriting a prohibition. It is difficult to understand why the right to take collective action differs.

Committee members were also keen to understand Liberty’s objection to the requirements proposed in clause 9 of the Bill. We discussed extensively the fear created by blacklisting, the discriminatory nature of imposing regulation over and above the law that usually applies to peaceful protests, and the undemocratic nature of making individuals jump through bureaucratic hurdles in order to exercise their rights. I would like to emphasise in particular the issue mentioned briefly in our session as to the consequences of failure to meet with other requirements proposed in clause 9. Under the Bill, it would be the case that the failure of one individual to wear an armband could be to render an entire strike unlawful. This would mean that every individual who has participated in that particular industrial action will no longer be protected from dismissal by their employer. Trade Unions themselves would also be liable to potentially significant financial penalties. These consequences are wholly disproportionate and could have very grave impact on individuals who are seeking simply to enforce their workplace right, or the rights of their colleagues.  

It is also important to note that proposals to limit the right to strike will also have much wider repercussions than reducing the incidence of strike action, inconvenient or otherwise. The proposals, when combined with other related reforms, will mean that bad or reluctant employers will have very little, if any, reasons to engage in constructive industrial relations with employees or their representatives. They will know that strike action is costly and risky. They will know that employees will have to pay a hefty fee to access and Employment Tribunal and that an employee will not be able to routinely access legal advice on how to resolve a workplace dispute under the reformed legal aid system. They will know that employees risk job loss should a designated colleague fail to wear an armband on a picket line. As a result, employees will have no means to encourage employers to approach industrial relations in good faith, if at all.  Earlier this week it was reported that 14 individuals employed to clean the Foreign Office were threatened by their third party employer with disciplinary measures for raising the issue of their low wages with the Secretary of State. When all routes of engaging with employers are shut down, how are workers expected to be able to enforce basic workplace rights?

Finally, I would like to draw the Committee’s attention to the Government’s three consultations associated with the Trade Union Bill, which we did not have time to cover in our evidence session. These consultations were conducted during the course of the summer over only eight weeks, and closed on 9 September 2015. They included a number of extremely serious proposals, such as the creation of a new criminal offence of intimidation. This proposal was made despite the clear statement from the police that the current legal framework is "sufficient and effective". With Committee Stage scrutiny of the Bill scheduled to close on 27 October 2015, it is most concerning that the Government has yet to publish its response to these consultations nor made clear whether it intends to proceed with any of the proposals contained within them.

For the Government to introduce via late amendments any significant changes to the Bill would not only show contempt for parliamentary process and the proper role of the legislature in scrutinising legislation, but seems certain to lead to ill-considered, bad law. We would urge Committee members to resist any amendments of this nature.

Once again, thank you for the time you have given to Liberty as you scrutinise the Bill. If you have any further questions on this Bill or any other aspect of your parliamentary work, please do not hesitate to be in touch.

October 2015

Prepared 28th October 2015