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The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order is concerned with removing some of the burdens currently imposed by the law upon employers when they deduct the trade union subscriptions of their employees direct from pay--the system known as "check off". The law in question is contained in Sections 68 and 68A of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 inserted by the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993.
The provisions of Section 68 and 68A of the 1992 Act have been unpopular with both employers and unions. This is because they impose a costly and pointless administrative burden. This was confirmed in the large consultation exercise we conducted last year. The overwhelming majority of the 106 responses indicated dissatisfaction with the existing law and support for the changes we propose.
The order eases the burdens in two ways. First, it removes the requirement on employers to obtain repeat authorisations from individual workers at least every three years, confirming their wish to continue paying their trade union subscriptions by check off. Secondly, it removes the requirement on employers to notify workers at least one month in advance if the amount to be deducted by check off is to increase. As a result of this order, individuals can pay their subscriptions by check off in much the same way as they pay other regular payments; for instance, by direct debit.
The Government are satisfied that the legislative changes contained in the order retain those aspects of the legislation on check off which provide necessary protections for workers. This includes the transitional arrangements. Employers are still obliged to obtain a written authorisation from workers before they can begin making check off deductions from their pay. Likewise, workers will remain free to withdraw from the check off at any time; and employers are still required under Section 8 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to give every employee a regular itemised pay statement, showing the amount of any deduction. In this way employees can easily tell each week or each month what deductions have been made. This is similar to the way direct debits are recorded in bank statements. The Government consider that these requirements provide a sufficient safeguard to keep employees informed about, and in control of, any check off payments.
The removal of the legal requirement that the employee is notified in advance of any increase in the subscription rate will not remove any necessary protection. Employees are in most cases notified of increases in advance by their union. Repeal should also produce significant cost savings to business and unions. Several million workers pay their subscriptions by check off. According to some estimates, it costs around one pound to obtain and then process a written re-authorisation.
The proposal has completed the preliminary scrutiny procedures for deregulation orders under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee of your Lordships' House and the Deregulation Committee of the other place have separately assessed and reported on the proposal. Both committees have indicated that they are content with the draft order as it stands. Therefore I commend the order to your Lordships. I beg to move.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is true that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee has declared itself content with the order. I am grateful to the noble Lord for setting out in some detail what the order is about and what it will mean in terms of the arrangements for employees to pay their union subscriptions. Nevertheless, the scrutiny committee had some concerns on the way and sought some assurances.
I wish to support the noble Lord and the Government in looking at the ways of reducing costly administrative burdens, particularly on business. Some costings have been done. Although they are not precise, the view has been that the cost is considerable. However, there is a principle at stake here. If I have a standing order--and I do have some--whenever there is a change to that standing order, particularly when it is an increase--but whether it is an increase or a decrease--there is a basic principle that I should be notified of that. The scrutiny committee pointed to the fact that employees ought to know what is going on and put the obligation on the unions to inform their members that subscriptions would go up. The subscriptions on most employees are standard subscriptions. Therefore, it cannot be beyond the wit of the unions to devise ways and means of informing their members without reverting to the bureaucracy with which the order seeks to deal.
I have in mind the trade union newsletter. All trade unions produce newsletters. Those newsletters go to their members. When they go to their members they should have in them information that from a certain date subscriptions for ordinary members of the union will increase and that that will be shown on their pay slips.
I was impressed by the comments made about putting this measure on the Internet. I support the recommendation that the consultation that precedes orders of this kind should be put out on the Internet. With this kind of order the voices and opinions of individuals are as important as those of the institutions because it affects individuals and not institutions. Of course, it is lessening the burden on the employer.
I looked at the 106 responses, which involved 33 individuals. The figures are impressive. Out of 106 respondents, 95 supported the proposals. Some of the concerns expressed during the consultation were addressed, and that is stated in the report. But were there any outstanding concerns that were not addressed concerning individuals rather than employers, trade unions and big organisations?
I have made it clear that I shall not be opposing the order. Reducing the burden is a good idea, but we ought to seek reassurance that the anomalies that are left with individuals and what takes their place will be equally protective of the rights of the individual.
Lord Haskel: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her very helpful comments and support for this order. I can give no assurances on behalf of trade unions, but most inform their members of increases in subscriptions in their journals or by mail. We would encourage them to do so as best practice. We try to encourage these things to be done by that method rather than by legislation. Of course, as the noble Baroness said, when workers receive their payslips they can see if there has been any change. I agree that it would be good practice for the unions to inform workers of increases before any deductions are made.
However, we could not find any evidence of abuse. We do not want to impose any further regulation on the unions, so the matter is best left to best practice. We have received no response from individuals expressing concern about the proposals. The noble Baroness mentioned that this matter was on the Internet. One of the problems with that is that one may have a large number of "hits" but one does not know how people will respond. In the event, we did not receive any responses from individuals.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order, if approved, will amend the Methylated Spirits (Sale by Retail)(Scotland) Act 1937 to remove certain requirements presently imposed on the retailers of methylated and surgical spirit in Scotland. This Act has no counterpart in England and Wales.
The 1937 Act requires retailers of methylated spirits and surgical spirits to be registered with the local authority and for each sale to be entered in a book kept by the retailer for that purpose. There is also a requirement for all bottles or other vessels in which methylated or surgical spirits are sold to bear a label identifying the contents and specifying the name of the seller and the premises on which they are sold. The Act also places restrictions on the sale of these substances to children under 14 years of age.
The Methylated Spirits (Sale by Retail)(Scotland) Act 1937 was introduced to address a specific social problem of the time. In the 1930s the drinking of crude spirits in Scotland was a considerable social problem. Methylated spirits in particular was seen as a cheap alternative to more expensive forms of alcohol. This problem has long since disappeared in Scotland. There has been no record of any person being proceeded against over the past 20 years where the main offence was a breach of regulations under the 1937 Act. The registration and record-keeping requirements are therefore now considered to place an unnecessary burden on retailers and local authorities.
In keeping with the statutory requirements we consulted widely about whether to remove the perceived administrative burden. The majority response to our consultation showed that there was overwhelming support for removing the recording and registration requirements.
However, responses to our consultation also revealed general support for the retention of the restrictions on the sale of methylated and surgical spirits to children. That is perfectly understandable at a time when we are increasingly concerned about substance misuse by our young people. We have therefore decided to retain these safeguards which prohibit the sale of such spirits to children under the age of 14 unless the seller is an authorised seller of poisons or the methylated or surgical spirits are supplied by a medical practitioner.
Thus we have derived a proposal which strikes the right balance. It removes unnecessary bureaucratic restrictions but continues to offer protection to children from the dangers of the inflammable liquid and from the risks of ingestion.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th May be approved [21st Report from the Deregulation Committee].--(Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale.)
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