Welsh Government statement on the Trade Union (Wales) Bill

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Mark Drakeford AM, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government, recently issued this statement:- 

 “Thank you for the opportunity to make a statement in relation to the Trade Union (Wales) Bill, introduced on Monday. The Bill seeks to dis apply sections 3, 13, 14 and 15 of the U.K. Trade Union Act 2016 as they apply to public services in Wales. 

There will be many members here who recall the background to this Bill.

The UK Conservative Government, following the General Election of 2015, introduced a Bill which sought to curtail the rights of Trades Unions in a series of significant areas.

The Welsh Government repeatedly intervened to set out our belief, to UK Ministers, that the Bill trespassed directly into the conduct of devolved public services, and that the Bill should be amended to exclude Wales from those provisions which cut across the responsibilities of this Assembly. My predecessor, Leighton Andrews wrote to his counterpart, the First Minister wrote to the then-Prime Minister, the Conservative Minister of State for Skills wrote to his colleagues informing them that legal advice from First Treasury Counsel concluded that the UK Government had ‘a very weak case in relation to Wales’, the National Assembly, in a vote on 26 January decisively declined to support a Legislative Consent Motion to allow the UK Government to legislate for Wales in this area.

None of that mattered.  The UK Government just went ahead anyway, claiming their ‘very weak case’ was sufficient to deny this Assembly’s competence in this area.  Let me deal, immediately, then with that competence issue.  The Supreme Court has made it clear that provided a Bill provision fairly and realistically relates to one or more of the subjects in Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006, and does not fall within any exception in that Schedule, it does not matter whether a provision might also be classified as relating to a subject which has not been devolved, such as employment rights and industrial relations.

Significant elements in the UK Government’s Act relate specifically to public services which in Wales are unambiguously devolved responsibilities. The Act refers explicitly to health services, the education of those aged under 17 and fire services, all of which are plainly devolved. It is untenable for UK Ministers to argue that their legislation must be regarded as concerned exclusively with non-devolved issues. It is this Government’s view that the relevant provisions of the Government of Wales Act 2006, in so far as they involve the delivery of public services, are to be found set out in section 108 and Schedule 7 of that Act and that they bring the provisions of this Bill squarely within the devolved competence of this National Assembly.

 Now, Llywydd, all of this was well known, and extensively rehearsed, while the original UK Bill was making its way through the Houses of Parliament. Despite all that, the Tories at Westminster decided to go ahead anyway. They had no political mandate to do so for Wales; they had no constitutional right to do so; they had no legal basis on which to do so – but none of that could stand in the way of their ideological zeal to attack the rights of organised labour.

As that became clear, my predecessor provided a commitment to bring forward a Bill in the fifth Assembly to reverse the effect of these provisions, to reflect the outcome of the LCM debate. That position was reflected in the Labour Manifesto at May’s election last year. It was confirmed by the First Minister when he set out the legislative programme for the first year on this Assembly term on 28 June last year.

And the Bill before you today is the product of that history. It is a brief Bill, but one with a significant task of protecting the long and successful tradition of social partnership in Wales. 

Because that is what is at the root of our objections to the UK Trade Union Act.

The result of the confrontational approach to industrial relations is to be seen every day across our border where the politics of social division lead inevitably to damage to the economy and to public services.

Here in Wales our record speaks for itself.

In 2014, when fire fighters were on strike in England, we reached an agreement with the FBU in Wales and strike action was avoided.

In 2015, when I was Health Minister in Wales, nurses, midwives, occupational therapists and others were on strike in England. Here we negotiated, and negotiated hard with our Agenda for Change staff to find an outcome which was acceptable to them, and affordable to us. No strikes took place in Wales.

In 2016, the health service in England was scarred by that bitter dispute with junior doctors which we were able to avoid here.

And, Llywydd, the damage does not end where strike action finishes. Its legacy is real and the damage goes on. Alongside its Trade Union Act, the U.K. Government consulted on proposals to rescind regulations that prevent the supply of agency workers to cover industrial action. We have therefore consulted on proposals to sustain the principle that agency workers should not be used in that way. That consultation has now closed and the results are being analyzed. One option would be for us to include a provision in this legislation. I will provide a further statement to Members as consultation analysis is concluded. 

Now, all of this is why we work so hard to make the social partnership model work in Wales.

The delivery of high quality devolved public services depends upon an engaged and committed workforce. For our key services, recruiting, retaining, developing and enabling a stable and engaged workforce is vital to shaping and securing the future of those services. In order to achieve that aim, the Welsh Government works collaboratively and in partnership with Welsh public authorities, including employers, employees and their representatives. That social partnership model is put at risk by the divisive provisions of the U.K. Act. It is our clear view – and that of trades unions and public service employers in Wales – that its effect will be to lead to more confrontational relationships between employers and workers and so undermine the delivery of public services and the Welsh economy. 

Our Bill seeks simply to reinforce and protect our social partnership arrangements by maintaining the existing settled arrangement within the Welsh public sector which has supported positive employer/employee relationships, including the right of trades unions to organise and, when other avenues have been exhausted, to take industrial action. It requires a culture of integrity, openness and trust, in which the shared aim is of early resolution of disagreement and the pursuit of consensus, even when there are difficult decisions to be made. 

Llywydd, we have a successful model here in Wales. It is not for UK Ministers to invent some new doctrine in which they claim a right to interfere in areas that, under the terms of our current settlement, are unequivocally devolved to the Assembly – and to do so in a way that is entirely contradictory to our approach to public services. It is for this Assembly rightfully to decide how we want to see those services delivered in Wales. That is the position which this Bill sustains, and I look forward to working with Members here and others to secure its passage onto the statute book.”

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