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.
Since the General Election, the government has promoted the interests of working people in every part of the United Kingdom. We have introduced 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. The Trade Union Bill, which receives its second reading in the House of Commons today, also protects the interests of working people who are hit hardest by industrial action.
We believe in the vital role played by trade unions in representing the interests of their members, both individually and collectively. They have helped to secure higher wages, safer workplaces and stronger employee rights. They form an important and constructive partnership with many employers to ensure that workplaces are fair and productive. Many Ministerial colleagues value their contribution in departments, and as Skills Minister, I have personally recognised the importance of the role of UnionLearn in helping union members take advantage of apprenticeships and other training opportunities.
This Bill is not a declaration of war on the Trade Union movement. Neither is it an attempt to ban industrial action. We believe that working people should have the ability to strike. But this freedom to strike is not unconditional. It must be balanced against the freedom of other working people to go about their lives without undue disruption.
This summer’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 self-employed people losing clients and income, people being unable to visit relatives in hospital, people missing flights they had saved for and enormous increases in taxi fares. The cost to London businesses has been enormous and many of the businesses hit hardest by industrial action are the restaurants, bars, hairdressers and independent shops that are least well able to cope with a sudden loss of revenue.
Of course, strike action is designed to be disruptive. But the impact of industrial action on ordinary working people is so disruptive that it should only ever be a last resort and taken with the explicit backing of a majority of union members. The Trade Union Bill sets a minimum turnout of 50 per cent for industrial action ballots and strikes in some important public services will require the support of at least 40 per cent of those eligible to vote. We are introducing this additional requirement for six key sectors – health service, fire service, education, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning.
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. This meant that operations and appointments were cancelled on little more than the support of 10 per cent of those eligible to vote. 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, there are obvious risks to all of our safety and security. 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.
The Bill also proposes a four month time limit on ballots so that mandates for industrial action are always current. At present, union leaders can secure a mandate for industrial action then keep using that mandate for years. This means that the ongoing London Underground industrial action could go on indefinitely. A number of unions have live mandates for industrial action that are more than two years old. Indeed, the NUT strike in July 2014 that closed around a fifth of schools was based on ballots from 2011 and 2012. 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. This will allow members to make an informed decision about what they are voting for or against.
It is not acceptable for employers to bully or harass workers, and unions have played a crucial role in defending workers from such behaviour. But neither is it acceptable for strikers to bully or harass non-strikers. While such abuses are undoubtedly the actions of a tiny minority of trade unionists, the Bill makes clear that such intimidation will not be tolerated and will make the appointment of a picket supervisor a statutory obligation. This requirement to appoint a picket supervisor is not a new and onerous burden. It is already in the Code of Practice on Picketing, which has been followed without difficulty by most unions for years.
The Bill will also modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members. Members should feel confident that their unions’ financial affairs are being properly and transparently managed. They have the right to make a positive decision about whether they want to pay for political activities and to receive reports on what the money contributed to unions’ political funds is spent on.
This is a One Nation Government acting in the interests of the whole country. Trade unions have played an important role and are responsible for many improvements in the rights and interests of working people. But when people’s lives are disrupted by strike action it is only fair that this happens as a result of a contemporary mandate supported by a majority of union members. Our reforms will take the next steps to ensure that we can continue 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.