Stop press: Trade Union Bill receives Royal Assent
On 4 May the controversial Trade Union Bill received Royal Assent and became the Trade Union Act 2016. After much debating, political wrangling and concessions by the Government (argued by some as the sweetener to get trade unions on board ahead of the EU referendum), the content of the Bill is finally settled. It has been a key priority of the Government, which is said to have allocated half of its labour lawyers to draft it, to ensure it completed its passage through Parliament in the 2015/16 session.
Key provisions of the Trade Union Act 2016
- A minimum 50% ballot turnout is required for any industrial action to go ahead;
- Where industrial action is proposed in 'important public services' (mainly the health, education, transport, border security and fire sectors), there needs to be (in addition to the 50% turnout) a 40% vote in favour of strike action from all eligible members (i.e. not just 40% of those that vote). However, the 40% threshold does not include 'ancillary' workers in those services, only those actually delivering the service in question. In a recent Government concession, workers would be excluded from the new 40% threshold for ballots in important public services if the trade union "reasonably believes" that they are not "normally engaged in the provision of important public services" at the time of the ballot;
- Any industrial action must take place within 6 months of a ballot (though this may be increased to 9 months by agreement between the trade union and the employer);
- There must be a clearer description of the trade union dispute and the planned industrial action being voted for;
- New members will be allowed to choose to pay into political funds under a transparent process for trade union subscription. The changes will not apply to existing members;
- Payroll deductions for trade union subscriptions may continue where the administrative cost is not funded by the public;
- The Act makes various changes to the way picketing is conducted including supervision by the trade union;
- There is a commitment to an independent review of e-balloting;
- The Act contains potential (but watered-down) moves towards a cap on 'facility time' in the public sector. 'Facility time' is paid time off to carry out trade union duties and activities, including accompanying workers to disciplinary or grievance hearings. The Government conceded that no action regarding any cap will be taken for three years. However, employers in the public sector (and some employers that provide public services) will be required to publish information on facility time levels and pay (to be specified further by regulations). The Act provides for a requirement of two years of data on facility time levels to have been collected, along with compliance with certain other procedural steps, before any cap may be imposed; and
- Under revised regulations (to be confirmed and not contained within the Act), the ban on hiring agency workers to cover the work of strikers will be lifted.
Despite being finalised, the Act remains controversial. Commenting on the final content of the Act, TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady said, "While we are pleased to have secured significant changes to the Trade Union Bill, it still remains a very bad and divisive bill." The Government is likely to face further legal challenges in the courts in the future, particularly if the UK remains in the European Union following the Referendum.
It is not confirmed when the Act will come into force, which will be by separate regulations.