Trade Union Bill: Bishop of Bristol raises concerns about proposals on facility time

Bishop of Bristol June 2015On 23rd February 2016 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Trade Union Bill during its committee stage. The Bishop of Bristol, Rt Revd Mike Hill, intervened during a speech by Lord King on clause 12. The clause, and clause 13 that followed, related to facility time and check off. The intervention is below and the full debate on the clause can be read here.

Lord King of Bridgwater (Con):[extract]

The value of responsible trade unionism is something that I have always respected and is enormously important. Listening to the noble Lord [Lord Hain], one would have thought that somehow Clause 12 abolished facility time. But it is not that at all. Noble Lords who came in half way through this speech may have wondered whether that was going to happen. All that the clause is saying is that there should be transparency and that bodies funded by the taxpayer—public bodies for which the taxpayer is paying—should be prepared to say how much facility time is offered to the trade unions. How much is paid for out of taxpayer-funded money to provide trade union services within their organisations? I am not suggesting for one moment that if those figures are then published there should be an instruction to say, “And the figure should be nil”. That would be extremely unwise. Facility time has a valuable function to perform.

I listened with great interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. We were given one of those speeches which suggest that this marks the end of civilisation as we know it. In my previous incarnation, when I did employment, I listened to the speeches on the Trade Union Act 1984 and I was told that it would mark the end of civilisation and the destruction of all responsible trade unionism. I listened to Mr Tony Blair and Mr Gordon Brown promising—as new Members of Parliament on that occasion, making their early speeches in the Commons—that it would be repealed immediately. Of course, as we know, it never was, and I am prepared to take any bet in this House today—although I am probably not allowed to do so—that no responsible Government would repeal this provision in respect of facility time, requiring public sector bodies that are publicly funded at least to publish the details of how much facility time they offer within their organisations.

The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I hesitate to question the assumptions being made by the noble Lord, Lord King, because he is a resident of my own diocese. However, it seems that he may be missing the point. The transparency that he speaks about is quite appropriate, but I thought that the aim of Clause 13 in particular was to assess the cost of facility time and possibly for the Minister to restrict it. That is what is being seen as the threat by trades unions. The noble Lord is quite right in one way, but this carries with it a threat. It would be interesting to know how much it will cost a Minister and his staff to vet all this stuff, but I think that that is where the threat lies and that is what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Hain, have been talking about.

Lord King of Bridgwater: If the right reverend Prelate will allow me, we are actually on Clause 12, which is about transparency. He is quite right to say that Clause 13 raises a different issue, but this debate is on amendments to Clause 12 and a Motion tabled by the noble Baroness that the clause should stand part. That is the issue I am addressing.

The other interesting fact here is that this is not some sort of great leap into the unknown because, as noble Lords know, this is already happening because it has been introduced in the Civil Service. I have not heard either the noble Lord, Lord Hain, or the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, say that it has caused riot and confusion within the Civil Service. My understanding is that what has actually happened is that following the publication and examination of the figures, there has been quite a significant reduction in expenditure on facility time. I have seen this happen, as has anyone who has worked in a big organisation or in industry…

…I thought that the right reverend Prelate was going to accuse me of encouraging gambling in your Lordships’ House, so I will not indulge in another bet. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that I favour facility time, but I know what is going to happen and I am absolutely sure of it. We will find that when these figures are published, there will be a huge variety of situations. Some managements will have kept reasonable control over the amount of facility time by starting out with the best of intentions and ensuring that it is properly monitored….

Lord Beecham (Lab): [extract] My Lords, I have listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord King, and I accept entirely that he is genuine in his support for facility time, but I am afraid that I share the doubts of the right reverend Prelate that we may be seeing the first instalment on an instalment plan to dilute further the position of trade unions and their capacity adequately to represent their members. In addition to the Government’s naked attempt to damage their political opponents through legislation in relation to the political levy, about which we have heard this afternoon and about which even some of their own MPs and some Members of your Lordships’ House opposite have misgivings, as again we have heard today, we are seeing a trend in legislation that is clearly hostile to trade unions—all trade unions, not just those affiliated to the Labour Party or which might, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Collins, lend their support to other political parties.