31 May 2017

S5M-05864 Protecting Workers’ Rights

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-05864, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on protecting workers’ rights.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I congratulate Michelle Ballantyne on her first speech in Parliament. I see that she attracted a large and appreciative audience for it—at least among her own party. I well remember my first speech in Parliament, which was in June 2001. As Michelle Ballantyne did, I joined the Parliament late, in mid-session, and not at the general election. I wish her every success—short of actual victory, that is—in her time in Parliament, and I look forward to hearing a speech from her that I can agree with in full.

I think that Michelle Ballantyne said that the only way to achieve change is through politics. I sincerely hope that that is not true. In particular it is, in the context of today’s debate, also possible to achieve useful change through trade union activity. It is another very important way of achieving change.

We are debating the protection of workers’ rights, but we should pay continuous attention to the issue. I do not think that we could reasonably describe our Tory colleagues in particular as the natural friends of workers—perhaps the deletions that the Tory amendment seeks to make to the motion illustrate that. The Tories are unconcerned about how their particular plans for how we should leave the EU will impact on workers or more broadly, and it is clear that they wish to see continuation of the substantial fees that workers endure when they go to employment tribunals. The people who have least are being asked to contribute most for their own justice. In general, the Tories seek to defend their pernicious Trade Union Act 2016.

I find that I can agree with Labour colleagues—even during an election campaign. I recognise that opponents have articulated good sense when they suggest that the EU-derived workplace laws must be fully protected. I absolutely support that.

Moreover, when the Greens call for environmentally responsible business practices—again, that is not something that the Tories sign up to; I cite as an example the cancellation of the important carbon-capture project at Peterhead, under what would have been a major employer—I find common cause with those colleagues.

Let us talk about trade unions. During my working life before Parliament, I was a member of the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union. I must confess that I was not an active member; I simply paid my subscription, as someone who wanted to know that the union was there, should I ever need it, although I hoped that I never would. When I became a manager, sitting opposite the union on the other side of the table and discussing activities in our company, I remained a member.

With regard to the provisions of the Tory act that very specifically attacks trade unions, I note that section 2 requires a 50 per cent turnout of eligible electors for any ballot for industrial action. If that were a principled position, it would also apply, for example, to local authority elections. Of course, it does not—in fact, it applies nowhere else. If it did, however, half of Tory councillors would not be in office. I must say that in that respect it is quite tempting, in its way.

However, under section 3 of the 2016 act, 40 per cent of eligible voters have to vote in favour of a strike. That is extremely challenging—as those of us who campaigned in 1979 with regard to the Scotland Act 1978 will be aware as we recall the George Cunningham amendment that required a similar 40 per cent of the electorate. If we were to apply the same rule to local government, it would probably mean that the Tories would have no councillors at all—which is extremely tempting. There is a matter of principle here, though; that provision is a serious illustration of the fact that the objective of the 2016 act is to neuter trade unions, not to protect workers’ rights. I also note other measures relating to the check-off system and the loss of facility time.

As we have heard, there is substantial evidence that trade unions are contributors to the success of businesses, companies and public services. Where unions are part of the decision making, better decision making results and success for the enterprise can follow. It might go back a while, but research that was undertaken by the Royal College of Nursing which has been subsequently endorsed shows lower leaving rates in unionised businesses, lower use of employment tribunals, fewer workplace injuries and less illness. That is a pretty good return for sharing, through the involvement of trade unions, decision making across all the people who work in an organisation.

I have been talking about the 2016 act, but I will close with some evidence from this Parliament of that same attitude to workers. The Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill was introduced to create additional protections for some of our most important public servants. We had a passionate and informed debate, and SNP members supported the bill, which had been introduced by the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition. However, when our Parliament voted on the bill’s general principles on 30 September 2004, only one of the seven members who I think are still here now voted against. Guess who? It was Murdo Fraser. Then as now, the idea was to deprive workers of their proper rights. The leopard never changes its spots—and the Tories will never work in the interests of workers.


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