On 8th February 2016, the House of Lords considered the Government’s Trade Union Bill in committee. The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke in favour of amendments to allowing electronic voting in union ballots alongside the Bill’s introduction of mandatory thresholds for strike ballots. Baroness Neville-Rolfe responded for the Government.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, it was nearly 50 years ago that I enrolled as a member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. I say that I enrolled, but I was enrolled—I had no choice. I was working between school and university and I worked in the Land Rover factory in Solihull helping to make Land Rover Defenders, the last of which have recently rolled off the production line. Since then, because of my career in the church, my direct involvement in the trade union movement has obviously been less, but I endorse what has been said about the union Unite, which some clergy belong to. It provides good advice and I much encourage my clergy, if they want, to join that union.
The 50 years since I ceased to be a member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union have been difficult for trade unions, one way or another. But they have a vital role going forward, not least in our globalised world which is driven by large economic forces. They have a place, but the key thing is to emphasise the process of modernisation, to which reference has been made. I, for one, fully accept that strike action should not result from a small and vocal minority dictating things to others, and I can broadly support the provisions in Clauses 2 and 3. It is a matter of judgment and it is in one sense arbitrary just where you draw that judgment. We will come on to that later. It seems to me that at the heart of the combination of Clauses 1, 2 and 3 is—to use a word which I think we have not used so far in the debate—a matter of fairness. That is what lies behind Article 11, to which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, referred. It is fundamentally a question of what is a fair position, balancing all sorts of different considerations.
Having listened to the debate so far and some very interesting speeches—not least that by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, behind me—issues of fairness indicate that a proper consideration of electronic voting should be part of the process of modernisation. I offer, in conclusion, a final encouragement. If the General Synod of the Church of England can embrace electronic voting, so can we.
Lord Cormack: My Lords, I was wholeheartedly with the right reverend Prelate until he called the General Synod in aid, but he was totally right about fairness. As someone who does nothing electronically and has no intention of doing anything online at all, I believe we have to accept that those who want to move with the times in that way should be able to do so. My noble friend Lord Balfe made an impeccable case, as did the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I find no particular affection for this Bill, but it is essential that when it goes on to the statute book—as it surely will—it must be seen to be fair. The right reverend Prelate is, of course, right. I pulled his leg, but if the Church of England can do it then we must allow the trade unions to do it. It must be fully supervised and properly secure. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said, nothing is ever 100% secure—which is why I would never do online banking—but we can do most things to ensure that the system is secure.
I want to do one thing and one thing only: to appeal to the fairness of the Minister who will come to reply. It is the function of this House, from time to time, to ask another place, and the Government, to think again. In no sense does this destroy or undermine the Bill, but it allows those who wish to vote to do so, in privacy, online. One could argue that they might be under less pressure than if they voted in my preferred way—in the workplace—or by post. We have seen so many abuses of the postal voting system in general elections that we cannot hold that up as a great example. I hope my noble friend will bear in mind the words of Mr Nick Boles in another place, which have already been quoted: if there is no objection in principle then let us make sure we enact in practice.
Baroness Neville-Rolfe: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, for his amendments and for bringing his wide experience of the public sector to this matter. I welcome new voices and new participants to our debate. We have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Pannick, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. It is good to have lots of people involved in our debate.
The essence of the Bill is to improve fairness and to protect the public from disruptive and undemocratic strike action. As this is the first day in Committee, I want to say that we will be in listening mode.
Let me turn to the subject of these amendments—electronic balloting—which was not in our manifesto, as my noble friend Lord Balfe pointed out. However, let me be clear that the Government have no objection in principle to electronic voting; indeed, we are encouraging a huge programme of digitalisation of the economy as a government. We are moving with the times, in the words of my noble friend Lord Cormack. It is an area of mutual interest to me and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.
However, it is vital that union members, employees, and the public have utmost confidence in ballot processes. Without that, of course, the integrity of the whole system is called into question. Members will not use it, unions will not rely on it, and employers and the public will not trust it. That is not in anyone’s interest.
I think there is recognition on all sides of the House that checks and safeguards are essential to any electronic balloting process. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, made this point admirably in his amendment. It is clear from today’s debate that noble Lords have given this issue very serious consideration. I have listened very carefully to the points that have been made, and in particular to all the ideas that noble Lords have put forward from all sides of the House. They have expressed their concerns on how to conduct safe and secure electronic ballots for trade unions. I will take a little time to reflect on these points.
In saying that, I want to be clear that it is modernisation of voting systems to which we have no objection in principle. As a Digital Minister, I can say with conviction that online is the way forward, but I agree with my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater that workplace balloting would be a regressive step. We must not lose sight of the fact that, however well supervised the ballot, people still need to get to it. That, unfortunately, provides scope for them to be under pressure of influence or intimidation.
Therefore, while we are keen to explore how to make electronic balloting work, we are not convinced that we could provide, especially in high-profile ballots, sufficient protection for employees voting in the workplace—that is, the protection of privacy and from the risk of intimidation or other influence, be it from the employer or the union.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, was concerned that the practical effect of the thresholds would stop strikes taking place, and that results of other ballots in different areas would not have been legitimate had these thresholds been required. He quoted elections from the other place and, of course, those of the police and crime commissioners. However, the important point relating to all the examples given by noble Lords is that this is not a fair comparison. Everyone could participate freely in these elections and have a democratic say on the outcome. By contrast, only union members are eligible to vote in ballots for strike action and large numbers of people who do not get a say are affected by the outcome. It seems right that stronger support is required for strike action.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I am reluctant to intervene and I do not normally, but I am genuinely puzzled by the arguments. Apply all this to the choice of the Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London, which was done electronically: was that not a significant choice? Could it not have a big impact on working people? There seems to be something not quite joined up in the thinking expressed.
Baroness Neville-Rolfe: I thank the right reverend Prelate, but I see it as different. The difference is that strikes have a huge effect on our public services and can cause significant disruption for hard-working people. We are legislating here not for the mayoralty of London, but for industrial relations. Statutory ballots require strong assurance on issues such as legitimacy, safety and security of voting.
My Lords, the simple point is that we need to be assured that the electronic ballot will give us a safe and secure outcome. I have heard from many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord King, whose conclusion I agree with, that the fullest turnout is the best safeguard against a wrong result. Frankly, that has been the spirit of several comments this evening. I want to ensure that we take fully into account noble Lords’ detailed knowledge of these matters and experience of how we can get round the difficulties on electronic balloting. I want to reflect further on the very excellent arguments we heard today. I ask noble Lords not to press their amendments.