3 Lord Woodley debates involving the Department for Energy Security & Net Zero

Tue 14th May 2024
Thu 23rd Mar 2023

Prepayment Meters

Lord Woodley Excerpts
Tuesday 14th May 2024

(1 week, 3 days ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think that is a bit of broad generalisation, if the noble Lord will forgive me for that. The principle of independent regulators was established a number of years ago throughout many Governments. I think all of us will have our opinions on how good or bad independent regulators are—they sometimes absolve the political system from some blame; that is my personal criticism—but we put in place through legislation the system of independent regulators, and of course we need to keep an eye on how they are doing their job.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

Does the Minister agree that these energy companies are very fast in putting up their prices but very slow in paying compensation? Does he agree that pensioners and poor people should not be forced to put these meters into their homes if they do not want them?

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Of course, I am pleased to tell the noble Lord that, since the height of bill rises, the price cap has come down by about 60%. So it is not true that prices are going up; they are coming down, although they are still at a historical high. As I said in response to a previous question, if the customer is not in debt, it is absolutely their choice what kind of meter they have.

Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendment 4, to which my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London has signed her name. Bishop Sarah sends her apologies that she cannot be here, but we both strongly support the amendment, not least given reports that many important voices across the healthcare world, including the Royal College of Nursing and NHS Providers, are similarly supportive.

The basic principles and urgency of the Bill are understandable, given the events of the past months. At the same time, those events themselves reflect the very low levels of morale and trust across many of our essential services, and an overly robust approach at this point would only exacerbate the situation further— in effect, pouring fuel on the fire. The idea that the failure to comply with a work notice should be regarded as a breach of contract or grounds for dismissal, thereby removing existing protections for the employee under the 1992 Act, would seem to reflect that overly robust approach. Were this amendment to be passed, the relevant trade union would still hold some liability, ensuring that this would still remain a useful and functioning Bill.

My friend the right reverend Prelate is understandably concerned about this from a healthcare angle, particularly given her former role as the youngest ever Chief Nursing Officer. From that perspective, passing the Bill without this amendment would seriously damage the co-operation and good will required for successful local negotiations in the somewhat febrile atmosphere in which we find ourselves. NHS Providers points out that, were individuals to go on strike contrary to a work notice and then be fired, unions could, and most likely would, take other action, either through work to rule or calling in sick en masse. Both would undermine the Bill’s primary and laudable purpose to provide safe levels of care. So, if that purpose is at the heart of the Bill, supporting this amendment seems to me to be essential.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendment 4, and I also support Amendment 5.

Amendment 4 covers the issue of protecting workers from being forced to cross their own picket lines under threat of the sack; it is a fundamental issue which strikes at the heart of trade unionism. The Bill, as it stands, gives bad bosses the power to target and victimise trade union activists by issuing work notices. Although I accept that minor concessions have been made, there are still no sanctions on bosses behaving badly, and we know, unfortunately, that some will do so, given the opportunity. The only way to protect workers fully is to make it absolutely clear that, if a striking worker refuses to cross a picket line during lawful industrial action, they will not lose their legal protections and will not be subject to dismissal. That is why the amendment is so important. Nobody should be forced to make the agonising choice between betraying their trade union principles of solidarity and standing together as workers and potentially losing their job.

Let us dispel the myth that this proposed law follows only what most of Europe already does—what absolute nonsense. This week, over 120 elected politicians from around the world, including from France, Germany, Italy and Spain, have called on our Government to abandon the Bill, pointing out that

“The UK already has some of the most draconian restrictions on trade unions anywhere in the democratic world … Despite this, the UK Government is set on further rolling back worker protections and freedoms”.

On Amendment 5, just as trade union members must be protected from being forced to act against their own interests during a legally organised dispute, so must the trade unions themselves.

This proposed law would, without a doubt, poison industrial relations and victimise workers and their unions. That is why I urge all noble Lords to support both amendments, and particularly Amendment 4.

Lord Sentamu Portrait Lord Sentamu (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, why did trade unions come about? Because there were bosses who would pick off one person after another to undermine the workforce. This amendment says that it is worth protecting this principle. We will bring back chaos if the Bill allows an employer to say to an individual who has not been given a notice that they have breached their contract. Of course, collective bargaining, at the heart of it, means that the whole body tries to agree—and that is why the noble Lord said that the best resolution comes from people being together at a table and talking, and not from having this kind of legislation.

I support this and the following amendment for the simple reason that every worker has a right to a fair wage for a fair day’s work, and every worker has a right to withdraw their labour if they think matters are unfair. You cannot bring in legislation which simply gets people back to work because conversation or discussion has not happened.

We should think of why the trade unions were born, and not go back on that—noble Lords should support the amendment. I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, did not press his amendment to a Division; I would have supported it, simply because it would have given clarity. The law at the moment is unclear—and we are going to be in trouble at some future time because he was too gentlemanly to press it.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Hendy and to see the noble Lord, Lord Soames, in his place, because this group is about international law and a settlement that his grandfather had a great role in promoting, not just in this country or Europe but in the post-war world.

My noble friend Lord Hendy’s suite of amendments begins with his attempt to ensure that regulations would comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. I hope that the Minister will have no problem at all with that, because, in relation to this Bill—not some others in the current programme—the Government’s position is that the European convention is to be complied with. My noble friend’s Amendment 18A gets a little more specific in ensuring that Article 11 is complied with and people are not penalised for their trade union participation. It would give a more specific effect to what is clearly the Minister’s intention by giving a Section 19(1)(a) statement of compatibility under the Human Rights Act. I am grateful for that.

The Government’s current position and approach to international law is complex, if I can put it like that. Sometimes we are told that Bills definitely comply with this or that requirement of international law and sometimes we are told that the Government do not care about the ECHR and might even leave it if the Strasbourg court does not like us, and so on. In relation to this Bill, everything I have heard so far here, at Second Reading and in Committee, suggests that the Government want to comply not just with the European convention via our Human Rights Act but with international law more generally. I welcome that. However, the statement in the Bill, as required by Section 19 of the Human Rights Act, deals only with the European convention and, as we have heard from my noble friend—who is an expert; perhaps the leading expert there has ever been in labour law in this country—there are other equally important international agreements and conventions, not least the ILO, which is particularly important in this area of employees’ rights and trade union rights. If, as I suspect, the Minister is going to say that of course the Government want to comply with those conventions, he will have no problem at all with putting that commitment in the Bill.

Why should he agree to do this? Because it will mean that, assuming that this legislation passes, future Minister who have not actually taken the advice that he has, or made the promises he has made and the commitment in the Bill, will be bound, when they make regulations—which are easy to make by ministerial fiat—to the commitment that he has made in relation to human rights. It is also important to put these commitments in the Bill because it will make our courts the ultimate referees of whether future Ministers, when exercising these broad regulatory powers, are actually complying or not.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I support this group of amendments. I first apologise for my non-attendance at Second Reading, having had a hospital appointment that I could not get out of, following my serious illness last year. Had I been there, I would have said that the Bill is vindictive, unnecessary and undemocratic, as well as unworkable and unsafe, and likely to be unlawful As it stands, it represents a grave threat to trade unionists, trade unions and trade unionism, and the fundamental right to collective action, as my noble friend Lord Hendy said.

Undermining the right to strike in the way the Bill does, and giving employers the power to compel striking workers to cross their own picket lines, would poison industrial relations across vast sectors of the economy. As my noble friends Lord Collins and Lord Cashman said earlier, the point was made by the Government’s own impact assessment on the Bill’s predecessor, the aborted transport strikes Bill, which admitted that industrial action short of strike, such as overtime bans and work to rule, would rapidly increase as a result. I am sure that none of us would want to see that happen.

My noble friends Lord Hendy and Lady Chakrabarti have made the main arguments for these amendments, but I would like to say a few words about the importance of keeping to our international obligations and our international standing. This is especially true as we were founding members of the International Labour Organization, a cornerstone of building a better world for working people. Many countries still look to the UK as an exemplar in human rights. It is also important that, in the light of Brexit, we are not seen to be on a race to the bottom, undermining workers’ rights in other countries, particularly as we have relationships and supply chains across Europe and beyond.

The Minister is well aware that, as part of the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU, we made commitments to maintaining our current standards of workers’ rights—the non-regression clause mentioned earlier—and commitments to fundamental rights at work that are grounded in the ILO core conventions, including ILO Convention No. 87, the Convention on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, which the Bill clearly violates.

The report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights also cast numerous doubts over the Bill’s compliance with Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the difficulty for trade unions to foresee its consequences, its insufficient protection against arbitrary interference with Article 11 rights, and the Government’s failure to provide evidence establishing a “pressing social need” for most of these changes.

--- Later in debate ---
The Minister confirmed previously that workers named in a work notice could only be forced to work their contractual hours. Yet the safe delivery of many of our public services, from NHS wards to classrooms, crucially depends on voluntary unpaid overtime, far above those contractual hours. So perhaps the Minister can explain how a minimum service will be defined when a so-called normal service depends so heavily on overtime, whether paid or unpaid. Would employers and the Government simply require 100% of the workforce to break their own strike to achieve that so-called minimum? So far, the Government have been unable or unwilling to tell us. Little wonder then that many people see the Bill as a barely disguised bid to ban strikes by the back door.
Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I support the amendments in this group, but the contribution by my noble friend Lady O’Grady is a heck of an act to follow. I should like to talk specifically on Amendments 25 to 28, which deal with the serious issue of targeting specific workers, especially, I say to the Minister, trade union activists. On reflection, I could have raised this in the debate on Amendment 21, but it is appropriate to do it here.

These amendments in the name of my noble friends Lord Collins and Lady O’Grady contain the issue of work notices and the potential for bad bosses to target, humiliate and victimise trade union activists—as has been raised by my noble friends Lord Monks, Lord Hendy and Lord Blunkett. Unfortunately, history is full of examples where bad bosses, given the opportunity, victimise workers in struggle. I say this seriously. I am talking about bad bosses. I have met many good bosses in my lifetime.

Let us go back 30 years, when the major players in the construction industry blacklisted hundreds of activists, humiliating them by depriving them of making a living and denying that they were ever doing so—and there are many other examples that I could give. In the Bill, we have notices issued to break a strike. Is the Minister really telling me that the bosses will not target activists, shop stewards, branch officials, conveners and even health and safety reps? Let nobody say that this will not happen; it will, and there is absolutely no protection in the Bill for trade union activists.

It is all very well for the Minister to say that an employer cannot use union membership as the basis for choosing which workers are compelled to break their strikes—although there seem to be no sanctions whatever if they choose to ignore this—but there is nothing to stop them choosing union activists, and experience tells us that they will. Strike leaders will obviously be at the top of the bosses’ hit lists, but nobody is safe from being forced to make the agonising choice between betraying your trade union principles of solidarity and standing together as workers, or potentially losing your job.

Let us take health and safety nominated reps. They do a great job for workplaces but, as my experience tells me, they can be somewhat pedantic, both to companies and, on occasions, to trade unions. They are not even protected and are therefore open to discrimination if they are told to cross a picket line that other workers have voted for. Their independence will be compromised, and this will not help companies or businesses going forward.

The disgraceful thing in the Bill is that it gives employers the right to list trade union members who have already jumped through hoops to vote for a strike and will now be forced to betray their colleagues and their own principles. If they do not, they can also be fired. Surely that is unacceptable in 21st-century Britain. The Joint Committee on Human Rights certainly thinks so: in its hard-hitting report, it suggests an amendment very similar to Amendment 27. The amendments here go further and offer broader and vital protection for trade union activists in particular, and I urge Members to support them.

I conclude with a very simple question for the Minister: is this legislation intended to be used by bosses to target, humiliate and even victimise strike leaders and other trade union activists? If not, why is there nothing in the Bill preventing this from happening? We need to know, and we need to know now.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will speak very briefly to this group of amendments; I will make no attempt to emulate the speeches from either the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, or the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, who have great experience in the union movement.

In the Bill, there is a specific requirement for the unions “to take reasonable steps” to implement work orders. On these Benches, there is still no understanding of what “reasonable steps” actually means and what legal jeopardy unions would be in if they did, or did not do, particular activities. However, I characterise this collection of amendments as causing the employers to take reasonable steps not to victimise members of the union as a result of this legislation. Therefore, it adds a mirror to the reasonable steps that the unions have to observe, so that the employers should similarly observe the same steps—and I support the spirit in which the amendments have been delivered.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, mentioned private sector deliverers. Having read the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Markham, my reading is that he rules providers such as Amazon out of the remit of this legislation. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm whether my interpretation is correct. I credit the noble Lord, Lord Markham, with coming to your Lordships’ House and participating in Committee. We had no such benefit of a Transport Minister, and we still do not know the position of private sector suppliers of services in the transport industry. While we seem to have an explicit ruling out of private sector deliverers in the health service, we have no such ruling out in the transport sector. Will the Minister, in responding to or confirming my interpretation of the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Markham, also tell us whether the similar and other deliverers of private sector services, which are crucial to the railway industry, will be included in the remit of the Bill, or, as in the health service, not included?

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Following on from the noble Lord, Lord Hendy—I apologise for butting in—it is not quite as simple as that. What happens if, of the employers list, 30% of them go off sick? Who is accountable for filling in the gap? Is it the union? Does it have to take “reasonable steps” to find substitutes? The Minister shakes his head to say that it does not—that is good. Perhaps when he replies he can explain what happens in the event of a significant number of those people going off sick.

I will not add any more, as I am sure there will be plenty from the Benches of His Majesty’s Opposition.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I support these amendments and want to complement and supplement the contribution of my noble friend Lord Hendy. As he said, these amendments deal with the fundamental issue of protecting trade unions from being forced to act against their own interests during a legally authorised dispute.

Like my noble friend, I find one of the most appalling parts of this skeletal Bill the requirement for trade unions

“to take reasonable steps to ensure”

members comply with a notice to strike-break. Ensuring compliance is the role of the trade unions, according to the Bill. What on earth does that mean in practice? There is nothing in the Bill to guide us here. How can unions be expected to police their own members who, after all, are simply ordinary workers who voluntarily joined the union? They pay their subscriptions and expect their union to support their democratic decisions, especially during disputes.

How is compliance normally ensured? How does the state ensure that people comply with its laws, for example? Again, as my noble friend Lord Hendy said, it is by threat of sanction or some kind of punishment. Is that what is meant here? Are trade unions supposed to threaten their own members with some kind of punishment if they do not cross their own picket lines? It is ridiculous. It is certainly not clear in the Bill whether that is or is not the case. But you can bet one thing: the bosses will see it that way.

What if the bosses or, ultimately, the courts decide that this punishment is not harsh enough? What if it is decided that the union did not take so-called “reasonable steps” or threaten punishments harsh enough to ensure that its members complied with the employer’s work notice? What then? Well, the whole strike loses legal protection, as does the union. What does that mean? The Minister in the other place was very clear in his letter to the Joint Committee on Human Rights when he said that all workers would

“lose their automatic protection from dismissal for industrial action”.

In short, they could face the sack. There is no dispute about what was said in the other place.