Code of Practice on Reasonable Steps to be taken by a Trade Union (Minimum Service Levels)

Debate between Baroness Noakes and Lord Cromwell
Wednesday 6th December 2023

(7 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I completely understand that the Benches opposite did not much like this legislation when it went through your Lordships’ House, as we have heard today, but it is the law of the land and has been passed by both Houses of Parliament. It seems churlish to hold out against a document that is only trying to help unions comply with its provisions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, have listed a number of reasons for the code of practice to be rejected or regretted, as the case may be. I suggest that these reasons do not stack up. I refer to the reasons as specified in their amendments, as opposed to the broader political speeches that we have heard.

The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, says that the code of practice

“imposes significant new duties on trade unions”.

It does not. Paragraph 7 says:

“This Code imposes no legal obligations”.

It is just guidance. It therefore does not go beyond the scope of the 2023 Act, as the noble Lord’s amendment alleges. Put simply, his amendment is inaccurate. It acknowledges that the intention of the guidance is to “provide … clarification to unions”, but then complains that there are “significant areas of uncertainty”. Guidance, by its nature, will never be exhaustive. He seems to be calling for absolutely certain rules and not guidance, but this is guidance. Much will depend at the end of the day on the circumstances, and the courts—not the Government—will determine whether a union has taken appropriate legal steps to stay within the law.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, did not go through her list of complaints when she spoke to her amendment, but I believe it is similarly misplaced. Her amendment says that the guidance can lead to fines on trade unions or make them into “enforcement agents”. She also complains that the draft guidance reduces workers’ rights. The guidance simply cannot do these things—it is just guidance.

The complaints of the noble Baroness might be more accurately targeted at the minimum service levels legislation itself, as we discussed earlier. That is now the law of the land. It is not the time to redebate those issues, which took up so much of your Lordships’ time in the last Session.

Lastly, the noble Baroness’s amendment says that the guidance somehow “breaches international labour commitments”, which, again, as guidance, it cannot do. Our obligations under the ILO conventions do not prohibit us from setting minimum service levels and certainly do not prohibit us from issuing guidance. I hope—though without much hope at all—that neither of the noble Lords will be pressing their amendments, as they really do not make sense.

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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My Lords, good grief, how did it come to this? I come at this at a slightly different angle as a businessperson, and I know that the Minister has much business experience. However, in business, a great deal of time and study goes into how to motivate people to work productively. I find it difficult—and I wonder if I could ask the Minister whether he shares my view—that passing a law that in effect forces people to work is hardly the way to go about things, and is, in fact, a sign of failure. It is certainly a sign of regret.