MP CONTRIBUTES TO THE TRADE UNION BILL DEBATE

The below account is taken from the House of Commons Hansard for 10 November 2015:

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): The Trade Union Bill was my first experience of sitting on a Public Bill Committee. Our sessions were lively and often educational, like the previous speech. The bit about St Thomas Aquinas was greatly enjoyed in all parts of the House.

As a former public sector worker myself for 17 years, I know what it is like to cross a picket line. I enjoyed questioning union greats, including Len McCluskey. Today those on the Conservative Benches have been called Dickensian, Stalinist and draconian, but many of us firmly believe that trade unions are valuable institutions in British society. It is vital that they represent accurately the views of their members. This Bill aims to ensure that hard-working people are not disrupted by under-supported strike action, but it is the human rights considerations that run through the Bill that have been of particular interest to me.

The rights of workers to make their voices heard are, of course, important, and striking is an important last resort. We recognise that it is part of the armoury of trade union law. Article 11 of the European convention on human rights provides to everyone

“the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests”.

It is, however, important to recognise that article 11 is a qualified right.

Ian Lavery: Is the hon. Lady aware of the letter that the Prime Minister sent to Ministers only days ago—it was sneaked out—on the change to the ministerial code, informing Ministers that they can now ignore international law? Does that have anything to do with this issue?

Victoria Prentis: I am not aware of that letter, although I am aware that there is a debate on the issue. I am talking about the European convention on human rights. There is no proposal from the Government to renege on that at any time in the future, as far as I am aware.

Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab): The hon. Lady talks a great deal about human rights and the European convention. Can she help me by telling me where article 11 talks about armbands and letters of authority?

Victoria Prentis: I would like, with your leave, Mr Deputy Speaker, to finish my point and come on to armbands later.

Article 11 allows for proportionate restrictions on the exercise of—[Interruption.] I am referring to article 11(2), which states:

“No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.

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The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly acknowledged, as recently as last year, that it is legitimate under article 11 for the Government to legislate to impose conditions on the right to strike where there is evidence that that is justified.

The Court has also acknowledged that the Government have a wide margin of appreciation in deciding how to legislate. Clause 9, as we have heard, introduces a set of requirements on the supervision of picketing, following some sensible concessions that were made by the Minister following the consultation period. The picket supervisor will have to wear a badge, armband or other item to ensure that they are easy to identify. This is hardly onerous.

Jo Stevens: The hon. Lady referred to article 11(2), which sets out the circumstances in which the right of freedom of association can be interfered with, including the protection of national security and the prevention of serious crime. All we have heard Conservative Members talk about is the “temporary inconvenience” that strikes cause. I am afraid that that is not listed in article 11(2).

Victoria Prentis: I do not believe that the wearing of a badge or armband, or some other means of identification, is onerous in the way that the hon. Lady suggests. In fact, it is something that unions widely do already as part of the code on picketing, which actually says that everybody should wear an armband.

I must admit that in Committee I was somewhat bemused by this part of the argument and the briefs provided by Amnesty International and Liberty in the evidence that was given. Both are excellent human rights organisations that undertake extremely important work around the world dealing with executions and torture, yet the wearing of an armband by one person so that they are identifiable during a strike presents them with a big issue. I do not agree. We are not asking everybody taking part in a strike to wear an armband, but simply asking the organiser of a particular event to do so in order to identify themselves.

Rachael Maskell rose—

Victoria Prentis: I am going to finish, if I may.

This seems to be an entirely reasonable and, more importantly, proportionate measure. There is a clear public interest in ensuring that trade unions take responsibility for the conduct of the pickets that they organise. It is only fair that the rights of those who belong to unions are balanced with the rights of hard-working taxpayers, including those in my constituency, who rely on key public services.