I rise to oppose the Bill in the strongest terms on behalf of Plaid Cymru. As the son of a retired trade union shop steward and the representative of an area steeped in coal-mining history, I value the role the trade union movement has played in advancing the lives of working people since it was legalised in 1871. It should be remembered that a royal commission in 1867 advocated the legalisation of unions as it would benefit both employees and, crucially, employers.
My party believes that instead of pursuing further draconian measures aimed at restricting trade union activity, a speedy inquiry on industrial relations and employee rights should be convened to look into the role trade unions should play in a modern economy and the challenges faced by working people, such as zero-hours contracts, low pay and the increasing lack of workplace rights.
If we are serious about creating a more socially just society, trade unions have a vital role to play. Instead of reducing their influence, I would like to see Government action to increase workplace democracy. In Germany, for instance, in an economy that has outperformed the UK’s over many decades and is more balanced both in terms of industrial sectors and geographical wealth, trade unions play a key economic role in formulating industrial strategy. In the German legal framework of co-determination, representatives also sit on company boards, giving workers a direct say on company strategy and the hiring of management. I would also add that Germany’s decentralist federal governance system has also greatly helped distribute its economic success more evenly geographically, unlike in the UK.
The Bill has been labelled the biggest attack on trade union activity for 30 years and follows a long line of anti-trade union laws brought in by Conservative Governments, most of which were not overturned by Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010.
Chris Stephens: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that there are trade union traditions within many of the political parties, even the Conservative party, which has the equivalent of what can only be described as a “walk out”—a privilege denied to the trade union movement in this country?
Jonathan Edwards: I am grateful for that well-made point. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his excellent speech as the spokesman for the SNP.
By my counting, there were 10 Acts between 1980 and 1996 that attacked the trade unions. The coalition Government, much to their shame, tied in a further assault on trade unions with the issue of trust in politics in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014.
The Bill aims to make it more difficult to take industrial action by forcing unions to give further notice before striking, introducing even higher thresholds for successful strike ballots and further restricting the right to picket. I note from elsewhere—this is critical to how the Bill will work—that the Government are minded to allow employers to bring in agency workers in the event of a strike. They are consulting on that currently. The Bill will undermine facility time, which will reduce the ability of union officials to represent their Members at work.
The UK has some of the most restrictive trade union laws in the western world. It is a shame that an early priority for the new Government is to bring in another Bill at rapid speed, less than a week after three separate consultations on some of the measures in the Bill were completed. That raises the question of whether the consultations were valid exercises.
The Bill applies to Wales, Scotland and England. It does not apply to Northern Ireland, where employment law is a devolved issue. Regressive measures such as those in the Bill should make progressive politicians and individuals in Wales consider whether the responsibility for these issues should be devolved, instead of being held here in Westminster. I note that the Scottish Government are keen to press ahead with the devolution of employment rights. If these issues were devolved to Wales under a future Plaid Cymru Government, I suggest that there would be an alternative scenario to the one that we are faced with here today with this Bill—a scenario where the role of trade unions in the workplace and public life is enhanced, helping to shape economic and industrial strategy; one where trade unions play a pivotal role in the management structures of the public and private sectors; and one where the pay and conditions of employees are strengthened to resemble European norms.