Trade Union Bill Committee Stage: The Government’s unwillingness to come under scrutiny should not have been a surprise

_82858498_joBy Jo Stevens MP

Last Tuesday marked the beginning of the Committee Stage of the Trade Union Bill, which I have been selected to sit on. After the Second Reading debate of the bill before Conference over a month ago, this was round two in our fight of the battle of arguments against the Tories in the House of Commons. We were ready.

We were ready to ask the government why the legislation to regulate industrial action included in the bill was so necessary when strikes are at their lowest level in 30 years and 20 times more days at work are lost due to stress than industrial action. We were ready to ask the Tories why, if they were so keen on boosting participation in workplace democracy, they refuse to introduce workplace or electronic balloting – especially when their own Mayoral candidate selection was conducted by e-ballot. We were ready to ask Government witnesses about the implications on the health and safety of the public and temporary workers by bringing untrained agency workers in to undermine strikes by covering the duties of workers taking industrial action.

And we did ask these questions – as well as countless others exposing the deep flaws in the bill – but the response was more shocking than we expected.

We expected Government witnesses and Tory Committee members to defend the bill to the hills but the truth is that they were completely stumped. The two days allocated to hear evidence from witnesses showed that the government’s side were completely clueless about the workings or functions of trade unions, workplace democracy and the fundamentals of trade unionism. If this had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it after the first couple of rounds.

For example, when I questioned the Government-selected witness from 2020 Health, Julia Manning, about Clauses 12 and 13 of the bill, which propose to change the current arrangements on facility time, she replied “Of facility time, I do not know about that”. When I pushed her on the issue, asking “You do not know anything about facility time?” she was forced to reply “No”. For the Government to call a so-called expert to give evidence on the bill, who was not only unfamiliar with its contents but also unaware of the meaning of facility time was not only pointless and a waste of time for those on the Committee but, above all, an insult to the millions of workers whose rights this bill threatens to diminish.

And this was by no means an isolated incident. General Secretary of the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU), Matt Wrack, had time in the evidence session wasted as he was forced to correct inaccurate statements made earlier the same day by Government witness, Commissioner Ron Dobson from London Fire Brigade. Commissioner Dobson spoke at length about the FBU’s 2010 dispute with London Fire Brigade, in an attempt to justify provisions in the bill on picketing that threaten civil liberties. This was on the basis of alleged intimidation in the 2010 dispute. When asked if, to his knowledge, any arrests were made during the dispute, he replied no. Matt Wrack corrected him later confirming that two arrests were made – of an agency worker and a non-striking London Fire Brigade manager for their treatment of firefighters on the picket line.

And it wasn’t just misleading or clueless witnesses who showed the government’s unwillingness to take this process seriously. The Government scheduled these evidence sessions before publishing the results of their consultation on the bill, undermining the ability of the opposition to hold the government to account. Given the fact the contents of the bill read like an assault on democracy through a step-by-step guide in how to stifle voices of dissent, I suppose the government’s eagerness to avoid coming under scrutiny should not have been a surprise.

Evidence sessions were rushed – with opposition witnesses repeatedly reminded of time constraints, which further limited their time. However, in the midst of this chaos and confusion, the only thing that became clearer was how much the government wanted to attack the trade union movement. The unnecessary nature of the legislation – and the Tories’ political motives behind it – were laid bare for all to see. It’s the next logical step for a government who spearheaded the Gagging Act through Parliament to weaken voices of opposition so it makes sense that undermining the trade union movement – the largest democratic grassroots movement in the country with over 6 million members – would be next on the agenda.

Committee stage continues this week where I will be going through the legislation, line by line, with colleagues to pick apart the provisions in the bill. Like last week, I’m sure there will be times when I’m left feeling frustrated but one thing is certain – I, along with my Labour Party colleagues, will continue to stand strong in opposition to this bill.

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