Trade Union Bill – second reading speech

Lord Tyler today (Monday) spoke against the “nakedly partisan” provisions of the Government’s Trade Union Bill in the House of Lords today.

He has tabled an amendment to the ‘committal motion’ which would see the Bill transferred to a special select committee for extra scrutiny, in attempt to force the government to fulfil its promise to seek a cross-party agreement on comprehensive party funding reform.

The full text of his speech is below. A video is available here.

[CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY - published on House of Lords today at approx 7.30pm]

My Lords, I start with a text.

“It has become a well-established custom that matters affecting the interests of rival parties should not be settled by the imposition of the will of one side over the other, but by the agreement reached between the leaders of the main parties or by conferences under the impartial guidance of Mr Speaker”
That was Mr Winston Churchill, Leader of the Conservative Opposition, speaking in the Commons on the 16th February 1948 (Hansard Col 859)

I agree with him, and that is why an amendment in my name is on the order paper, to the Committal Motion.

Quite simply, we should not commit Clauses 10 & 11 of this Bill for consideration in the legislative process without looking, through a Select Committee, and in detail at their overall effect on political funding in this country.

It is already uneven ground, and this Bill risks making it much, much worse.

I have no partisan interest in this, because trade unions do not donate to the Liberal Democrats. I do however, have a very longstanding interest in proper, balanced, comprehensive reform of political parties and the funding of democracy.

It was one of the great disappointments of the Coalition period that more progress was not made in this area because funding scandals are a running sore of British politics, for all parties.

In 2011, the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life offered the political system a way out of its own mess through a carefully considered, well balanced package, sitting firmly on the foundations of Hayden Phillips’ recommendations in his review, set up by Labour in 2006.

The Committee’s proposals were so helpful that, alongside Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie and Labour MP Alan Whitehead, I had them turned into a draft Bill for consultation.

In proffering its recommendations the Committee said this:

“this situation is unsustainable, damaging to confidence in democracy and in serious need of reform. This was also the view of the three major parties at the last election. All three made commitments in their manifestos to reform the big donor culture. They now need to deliver on those commitments.”

They went on, “It is critical too that the proposed reforms command the support of all parties. They will not otherwise prove to be sustainable. It would be unfortunate if the parties looked at them only in terms of political party advantage. It would also be a lost opportunity. All share a common interest in public confidence in the integrity of the democratic system. Their manifestos for the last General Election recognised that fact. Implementation of our proposals will, however, require political courage.”

What we have before us is much more an example of naked political opportunism than political courage.

It is worth just recalling what the principal recommendations were:
1. A cap on individual and corporate donations of £10,000
2. A 15% reduction in campaign spending limits
3. A new system of public support to political parties to be introduced, relating to support at the ballot box

And…

4. Changes to ensure donations through trade union political funds by individual trade union members, were all on an “opt-in”, transparent basis.

This Conservative Government is taking just that fourth part of the recommended comprehensive, balanced package, and seeking to implement it without any of the earlier three.

Ministers are also taking only one part of their own manifesto on this subject which read clearly, in two consecutive sentences, as an even-handed objective:

“We will legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for subscriptions to political parties. We will continue to seek agreement on a comprehensive package of party funding reform”

My Lords, where are their efforts to seek that agreement?

The question of opting in or opting-out to political fund levies is absolutely central to the overall balance of rules on party political funding.

It cannot – with an even hand – be extricated from the other questions of a donation cap, reduced spending limits and some measure of public funding to make up the difference.

To try to do so represents a nakedly partisan attempt to rig the system against one party – the Labour Party – and, by extension, in favour of the other.

It is exactly the kind of unilateralism Winston Churchill warned against.

And, for all that, the need for comprehensive funding reform has only got greater since the report in 2011.

Jim Messina, who was key adviser to ran the Conservatives’ 2015 election team, has told The Spectator that the party spent £30m on the campaign.

That is quite an admission since the legal limit for parties contesting all GB seats is just under £19m.

We do not yet have the official figures submitted to the Electoral Commission, which may report a lesser sum than his boast.

But what we do know now is the scale of donations to each party – the ammunition in the arms race – during the four quarters running up to, and including, the 2015 election.

In the year running up to May 2015, the Conservative Party raised £38.1m.

That was about 60% more than Labour who were on £23.8m, including all the trade union donations, which the Bill attempts to undermine.

So there is already a huge disproportion of advantage between the two major parties.

This Bill would make it eye-wateringly worse, and no fair minded person could think that is reasonable.
Before concluding I want to make clear that I and my party agree with the Government that it is right in principle for Trade Union funding of political parties to be made transparent. That is NOT what my amendment is concerned with.

Indeed, we should know who is donating through a political levy; how much represents block donations, and so on.

But we should not impose such rules without some balancing provisions in the form of a donation cap, which would affect the Conservatives and, I must say, the Liberal Democrats too.

To accept the Government’s partisan proposals is to give in to a tendency the CSPL specifically warned against in its 2011 report.

How prescient they were when they said: “it is important that [our] proposals are regarded as a package. Failure to resist the temptation to implement some parts, while rejecting others, would upset the balance we have sought to achieve.”

That is precisely the temptation motivating the authors of this Bill.

Your Lordships’ House will recall that the CSPL was set up by the last majority Conservative Government specifically to oversee seven key principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It has served the nation and this Parliament well in doing so.
This legislation in its present form offends just about all seven of those principles.
It is difficult to imagine a Bill which is more clearly selfish and subjective, nor one for which the case has been made with more opacity and dishonesty.

Your Lordships’ House has a special role in identifying power grabs by the Executive – and in this case by one party, for its own interest against that of its rivals.

We have the benefit of independent Crossbenchers in the House to act as honest brokers, and I feel sure that colleagues on those benches will see the partisan nature of this Bill for what it is.

We have a responsibility to ensure the motives behind, and consequences of, legislation like this are properly scrutinised.

I can think of no better place than a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House to ensure that scrutiny happens.

I hope therefore that the House will join me in referring these controversial sections of the Bill into a special Select Committee of the House, and that the Government will then deliver on its full manifesto promise for a comprehensive package of party funding reform.

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