Many constituents have taken the time to email me regarding the Trade Union Bill  and I would like to acknowledge that trade unions are valuable institutions in British society.  Dedicated trade unionists have a strong history of working hard to represent their members, campaigning for improved safety at work and giving support to their members when it's needed. But it is only fair that the rights of unions are balanced with the rights of hardworking taxpayers who rely on key public services.

 

People have the right to expect that services on which they and their families rely are not going to be disrupted at short notice by strikes that have the support of only a small proportion of union members.  That is why the Government is introducing reforms to strengthen strike laws. The Trade Union Bill will ensure that strike action only ever takes place on the basis of clear and representative mandates through new thresholds that strike ballots must meet. There is a new 50% participation threshold for all ballots for industrial action and a 40% support threshold for important public services - the fire, health, education, transport and nuclear decommissioning sectors, and the Border Force.  It will also ensure that a 4-month limit to the validity of strike ballot mandates is introduced, after which the mandate expires. At present a mandate is open-ended, and can persist for years after the original ballot, by which time support for the action may have evaporated and many of the original members may have left the employment.

 

With regards to ending the ban on using agency staff to cover for striking workers, the Government believes this is an anomaly and removing it will help schools and hospitals arrange cover for striking staff, so there is less disruption to the public. The Trade Union Bill does not include provisions to achieve this, but the Government is consulting on draft regulations which would, and could be made under existing powers. The closing date for this consultation was 9 September 2015 and the Government will publish a summary in 6 weeks.

 

The Bill intends to restrict facility time because, when the Coalition Government came to power in 2010, the practice was unmonitored and it was not checked to ensure it presented a sensible use of taxpayers' money. The Government has now introduced changes to bring the arrangements into line with modern work practices.  A consultation was carried out by the Government on how much time civil servants can spend undertaking trade union activities during paid work time and concluded that the practice was costing the taxpayer around £36 million a year in paybill costs alone.  Trade union representatives must now spend at least 50 per cent of their working hours carrying out their civil service role and I believe this is right. Exemptions to this rule can be approved by the Secretary of State.  As a result, millions of pounds have been saved and the number of taxpayer-funded full-time union officials has been reduced from 200, when the Government first came to power, to less than 10.  The Government recognises the constructive role trade union representation can play in the workforce and the consultation does not seek to change the statutory basis for facility time. However, it is right to monitor the practice to ensure it is a sensible use of taxpayers' money.

 

Under the Trade Union Bill, the check-off process will be removed in order to modernise the relationship between employees and their trade unions, while removing the burden of administration from the employer.  Currently check-off means that many public sector workers who are union members have their subscriptions taken directly from their salary, administered by their employer. This was a practice introduced at a time when many people did not have bank accounts, and before direct debits or digital payments existed as a convenient and secure way for people to transfer money.  I think there is a clear argument that in the 21st century era of direct debits and digital payments, public resources should not be used to support the collection of trade union subscriptions.  The move also gives the employee greater control over their subscription, allowing them to set up their own direct debit with their chosen trade union, and giving them greater consumer protection under the Direct Debit Guarantee.

 

The Government will also introduce a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions to political funds. Political donations should always be voluntary and this will help ensure that is the case.   In addition, to ensure that unions meet a minimum standard of transparency on political expenditure, trade unions spending more than £2000 per year from their political funds will need to provide a breakdown of their expenses to the Certification Officer.

 

The Government have been concerned about allegations of intimidation of non-striking workers, and of new forms of aggressive campaigning in which families have been caught up in disputes and workers have suffered online abuse.  As a result, the Government will make the key provisions of the Picketing Code - the rules governing picket lines - legally binding. We will make trade unions more accountable for their conduct on picket lines to tackle the problem of intimidation of non-striking workers and we are consulting on how the relevant legal framework can be strengthened further. However, the Government is not proposing to introduce new measures that are not already in the Picketing Code - which most unions have followed without difficulty for many years.

 

Trade unions have a constructive role to play in representing their members' interests.  I hope you will agree that these are sensible and fair reforms that balance the right to strike with the right of millions of people to go about their daily lives without undue disruption.