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Opposition to Trade Union Bill

Published: 17 Jan 2016 13:51

FM: “We will do everything we possibly can to defeat and frustrate the Bill”

The UK Government's Trade Union Bill is "an attack on the fundamental freedoms of trade unionists", First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said today.

Speaking at the Unite Scotland conference, ahead of the publication of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee's report into the Bill, the First Minister reaffirmed the Scottish Government's overwhelming opposition to the Bill's provision.

The First Minister said:

"Tomorrow, the further Powers Committee of the Scottish Parliament will publish its report on the UK Government's Trade Union Bill. Next week, the Parliament will debate the Bill. That vote – which will take place on the same day as a debate in the Welsh Assembly – gives us a further chance to express Parliament's overwhelming opposition to the Bill's provisions.

"This is a Bill which, in my view, would never have been proposed, let alone passed, in the Scottish Parliament. In fact, the last time the Parliament debated the bill, we voted against it by 104 votes to 14. That's why I believe so strongly the power over employment and trade unions law should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

"The Bill is an attack on the fundamental freedoms of trade unionists. It encapsulates a world view that this Government doesn't recognise and for which wider Scottish society has no sympathy. The Trade Union Bill sees unions as obstacles to economic growth rather than as partners in progress. As a result, the Bill's provisions - on curbing facility time and the abolition of check-off - are draconian and deeply damaging to good workplace relations. They are also completely unnecessary - in Scotland, days lost due to strike action have declined by 84 per cent since 2007.

"The Scottish Government will oppose the trade union bill vigorously and vehemently. We will continue to argue against it at every opportunity in Westminster. We will continue to press for Scotland to be exempted from its provisions. And we will never willingly co-operate with its implementation. For example, we will not employ agency workers in the event of a strike. We will do everything we possibly can to defeat and frustrate the bill."

The First Minister also confirmed that she has written to David Cameron, setting out the Scottish Government's opposition to the Trade Union Bill and that the Scottish Government "should be excluded from the extent of this Bill" with "all powers relating to industrial relations be devolved".

In her letter, the First Minister said:

"I believe this Bill has the potential to undermine the effective engagement of trade unions across Scottish workplaces and in particular in the Scottish public sector.

"The Scottish Government is committed to a collaborative approach to industrial relations that we believe delivers a fairer, more successful society. This is reflected in that fact that the levels of industrial dispute in Scotland have significantly decreased over the last 7 years of our administration and the days lost to industrial action remain some of the lowest in the UK.

It is therefore difficult to appreciate what issues this Bill is trying to tackle from a Scottish perspective and on that basis, I continue to hold that Scotland should be excluded from the extent of this Bill.

"Furthermore, I believe that all powers relating to Industrial relations should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, a position supported by the Scottish Trade Union Congress.

I know it is your intention to press ahead with the Bill as drafted but I welcome your commitment to further discussion on the implications for Scotland and our devolved responsibilities. My specific concerns in this regard relate to those provisions which will have a significant impact on the operations of the Scottish Government's ability to exercise its devolved powers.

"Therefore, I believe that these responsibilities should rightly sit with Scottish Ministers in relation to our devolved functions."

Notes to editors

You can read the First Minister's speech to the Unite Conference here: http://news.scotland.gov.uk/content/default.aspx?NewsAreaId=139

The full text of the letter to the Prime Minister is below:

At our meeting of the 14 December I raised my concerns with the Trade Union Bill which is currently making its way through the House of Lords.

As I made clear, I believe this Bill has the potential to undermine the effective engagement of trade unions across Scottish workplaces and in particular in the Scottish public sector. This position was expressed in a number of letters from Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training, to Nick Boles, Minister of State for Skills. To date no response has been received.

The Scottish Government is committed to a collaborative approach to industrial relations that we believe delivers a fairer, more successful society. This is reflected in that fact that the levels of industrial dispute in Scotland have significantly decreased over the last 7 years of our administration and the days lost to industrial action remain some of the lowest in the UK.

It is therefore difficult to appreciate what issues this Bill is trying to tackle from a Scottish perspective and on that basis, I continue to hold that Scotland should be excluded from the extent of this Bill.

Furthermore, I believe that all powers relating to Industrial relations should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, a position supported by the Scottish Trade Union Congress.

I know it is your intention to press ahead with the Bill as drafted but I welcome your commitment to further discussion on the implications for Scotland and our devolved responsibilities. My specific concerns in this regard relate to those provisions which will have a significant impact on the operations of the Scottish Government's ability to exercise its devolved powers.

For example, the restriction of Facility Time will limit our ability to work effectively with trade unions on a range of issues. Clause 13 of the Bill states that a 'Minister of the Crown' may exercise the reserve powers to make regulations on facility time if they consider it appropriate to do so. It is unclear from this wording who may hold the responsibility for such regulations however it could suggest UK Ministers making decisions that would have a direct impact on the operation of public bodies in in Scotland such as the UK Health Minister placing regulations on NHS Scotland. I would argue that this clearly should not be within the competence of UK Ministers and is not within the spirit of our devolution settlement.

Therefore, I believe that these responsibilities should rightly sit with Scottish Ministers in relation to our devolved functions.

A further example of impacts on the operations of the Scottish Government is the removal of check-off in the public sector [Clause 14 – Prohibition on deduction of union subscriptions from wages in public sector]. Currently the Scottish Government has a cost neutral position in administering 'check-off'. Counter to your intentions, abolishing 'check-off' may require significant resources to be expended to facilitate alternate payment systems. This could also reduce the support that unions provide to their members, thereby limiting trade unions' ability to support the work of devolved public bodies in Scotland. This does not in our opinion support the Bill's intention of offering Taxpayers value for money and I am clear that it is for the Scottish Government to determine the value of 'check-off' in relation to Scottish Public Services.

There is a clear and wide spread resistance to this legislation in Scotland and many local authorities, trade unions and other bodies have voiced real concerns that the Bill will negatively impact on their workforce and its operations.

In addition, the Scottish Parliament has voiced its opposition to the Bill in a debate on 10th November with many recognising the direct impact on areas of devolved competence. The Scottish Parliament is continuing to consider this issue and we have submitted a general memorandum to the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee to consider and will hold a further debate in Parliament later this month.

To conclude, I would reiterate that there is a strong case for Scotland to be removed from the extent of the Bill but, at the very least, I believe that the regulation making powers being set out should be conferred on Scottish Ministers where they relate to the devolved public services. As the bill has already made considerable progress at Westminster I believe this matter should be resolved as a matter of urgency.

As we agreed, I have instructed my officials to take forward these issues with their counterparts in your government in the hope that a suitable resolution may be found ahead of the Bill's final reading.