Nick Boles is MP for Grantham and Stamford. He serves as Minister of State jointly at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education.
In the two months since the general election, the government has acted boldly to promote the interests of working people in every part of the United Kingdom. We have done so without fear or favour. We are asking a lot more of employers: by introducing a National Living Wage that will be compulsory for everyone over 25 years of age and a new apprenticeship levy to fund three million new, high quality apprenticeships by 2020. Today we are introducing a Bill which will ask more of trade unions representing a quarter of all employees.
We believe in trade unions. They play a vital role in representing the interests of their members, both individually and collectively. Many employers welcome the involvement of trade unions as reliable partners in the development of fair and productive workplaces. As Skills Minister, I value the role of UnionLearn in helping union members take advantage of apprenticeships and other training opportunities.
We also believe in the right to strike. But this right is not absolute or unconditional. It must be balanced against the right of other people to go about their lives without undue disruption.
Last week’s strike action by transport unions highlighted the need for a fair and reasonable reform that balances the interests of the general public against the interests of trade unions. Angry social media posts reported health support group meetings being cancelled, people being unable to visit relatives in hospital, and the closure of college and university facilities. The Federation of Small Businesses estimated the cost to London businesses at £300 million: many of the businesses that will have suffered most are the restaurants, bars, hairdressers and independent shops that are least able to cope with a sudden loss of revenue.
The Trade Union Bill proposes that strike action should be the result of a strike ballot in which at least half of those eligible to vote do so. We also think it’s right for union members to be given clear information about the nature of the dispute and the industrial action that is proposed, for employers to be given reasonable notice before industrial action starts, and for continued industrial action to require a further ballot once four months have passed.
In some important public services we believe that it is right to introduce another threshold so that strikes require the support of at least 40 per cent of those eligible to vote. Last year’s NHS strikes led to cancelled operations and appointments for patients across the country, but only 19 per cent of the 60,000 Unite members balloted returned their ballot paper and little more than 10 per cent of those eligible to vote voted in favour of a strike.
When teaching unions go on strike, parents can’t put their children into another school for the day. When transport unions go on strike, many people find it impossible to get to work on time – or have to pay a fortune to do so. And when our fire service, or border security force or nuclear decommissioning teams go on strike, the safety of all of us is put at risk. So it is only fair that industrial action in these important public services should require the active support of 40 per cent of those eligible to vote.
Our Bill will also modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members. Members should feel confident that unions’ financial affairs are being properly and transparently managed. They have the right to expect a positive say in whether they want to pay for political activities and to receive regular reports on what the money contributed to unions’ political funds is spent on.
Trade unions have played a crucial role in the modern history of our country. They can claim responsibility for many important improvements in the rights and interests of working people. As a One Nation government, we want to work with a modern and accountable trade union movement to achieve further improvements in the lives of working people in every part of the United Kingdom.