On the 11th January 2016 the Rt Revd James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester, spoke during the Second Reading of the Government’s Trade Union Bill. The Bishop called on Government to foster a culture of good practice and partnership rather than introducing fresh measures to increase regulation and control.
The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, we on these Benches are always wary of involving ourselves in debates that, as we have already seen, are likely to become fairly polarised in political ways. Of course, this is a Second Reading debate, in which we try to focus on matters of intention and principle. Therefore, I dare to step in. Indeed, it is only because my right reverend friend the Bishop of Bristol has conspired to get himself on a plane to Uganda at this precise moment that I am standing in his place at all. I rather wish that he had been here instead of me, but there we are.
We have an interest in these matters, because many of the origins of the trade union movement lie in close partnership with the churches of this land, not least the Methodist Church but others also. From these Benches, we have a continuing concern for the flourishing of those things that are to do with civil society in our nation, and, within civil society, of those things that we think of as intermediate institutions, of which trade unions are a very good example. Therefore, the place of trade unions is of concern to us.
It is unfortunate that often in public debate, not least in the reporting of public debate on trade unions, there is a tendency to focus on what might be seen—certainly from a publicity point of view—as the sharp end of trade union activity: that is, activity around industrial action. However, as has been indicated in this debate, the reality is that an awful lot of trade union work is much more mundane and low key and is about a whole range of issues to do with well-being and welfare in the workplace and, indeed, the economic vitality of many of our industries. When trade union activity works well—as it very often does—it fosters good relationships in the workplace, reduces absences from work, resolves disputes, promotes mediation and avoids recourse to employment tribunals and their associated expense. Good evidence and research illustrate those things.
In a debate in your Lordships’ House in November last year, my right reverend friend the Bishop of Derby spoke eloquently about trade union participation and involvement. I will not repeat what he said but simply encourage noble Lords to read that contribution.
My questions on the Bill, and the area to which I hope that this House will give attention, not least in Committee, concern whether all the proposed prescriptions are strictly necessary, as has been mentioned by one or two other noble Lords. Indeed, there is always a danger that we end up with the unforeseen consequences of prescribing things and find that prescription demotivates and therefore militates against the participation we wish to encourage. As a representative of the Church of England, I know only too well that we have an increasingly non-joining culture. We want people to participate in our institutions at the various levels that are possible within our society. It would be deeply sad if the prescriptive elements of the Bill were to discourage voluntary activity and working together. Trade unions are part of the picture we wish to foster and encourage.
I have heard from an episcopal colleague, who is unable to be here today, of a large and by no means left-wing local authority whose leader is seriously worried about the level of prescription in the Bill, which he believes threatens to undermine the existing good and effective working arrangements between employers and trade unions. For example, they have reached agreement on facility time and have a working arrangement for collecting levies and suchlike. These things are working perfectly well in that setting. What has our talk about devolution and localism achieved if we cannot trust those arrangements to work without having to prescribe them in what might be seen as a heavy way? I support every possible initiative to increase participation in all sorts of institutions within our society. I was interested, therefore, to hear about electronic ballots in this context, and whether we can increase their use. I worry about the introduction of imposed thresholds and hope that we will have more debate around that, because in most other parallel situations there are no such thresholds. Reference has already been made to the election of police and crime commissioners. If we had 40% thresholds there, we would have some interesting scenarios to look at. Therefore, there is a bigger debate to be had about this sort of thing in the context of encouraging participation.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, spoke eloquently about the whole matter of funding. That, too, is a wider debate. We will see where that goes and I look forward to the noble Baroness’s response to his contribution, which seems to me to merit further consideration.
We do not have to look very far to see places where people do not enjoy good conditions in the workplace—not only internationally, although it is easy to see examples there, but in the UK. Those are concerns that led among other things to the passing of the Modern Slavery Act, which was a good piece of legislation. Issues were also raised by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in relation to practices in parts of the agriculture, construction and hospitality sectors. Trade unions at their best protect people who are vulnerable in the workplace and where there is a danger of exploitation. We want to encourage modernisation, good practice and all those sorts of things. In looking at this legislation in detail, as we will in coming weeks and months, we need to make sure that we employ positive encouragement towards good practice, which always works better than measures that rely on inappropriate prescription and control. In applying our wisdom to the Bill, I hope that we will bring those kinds of things into consideration.