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Jonathan Djanogly raises concerns about proposals to change voting methods in trade union ballots for industrial action

10th November 2015

Jonathan Djanogly raises concerns about intimidation and security if proposals for workplace ballots and e-voting in trade union ballots for industrial action were adopted.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I rise to speak to new clauses 5, 6, 7 and 9. In overall terms and despite the heat coming out of the Bill, I think we can all agree that we have moved a very long way in industrial relations and strike laws towards consensus and away from the polarisation we saw in the early 1980s.

The Trade Union Act 1984 requirement for compulsory industrial action ballots to be put in place for there to be statutory immunity was a very significant step, although it did cement the rather odd situation whereby there is, technically, no right to strike. Rather, we give unions in certain circumstances statutory immunity for the tort—civil wrong—of inducing a breach of the employment contract. That being as it may, I think we can all agree that voting before a strike is vital, and that the vote itself should be carried out in a free and fair manner that reduces, so far as possible, any chance of coercion, threat or intimidation to the voter. It is certainly the case that the Bill addresses ballots insofar as voter turnout requirements and how the questions are put, but it does not address the question of how the ballot itself is physically conducted. This is now being put to the test by the Opposition in their amendments. New clause 7 argues for secure workplace ballots and new clause 5 suggests implementing electronic voting in ballots for strike action.

My first observation is that those two concepts do not necessarily sit very well together. Namely, if the Opposition believe that e-voting is the future and the way to go, why are they proposing returning votes to the place of work? The problem is actually more profound, of course. The security of a postal vote sent to a person’s home does remove a large area of risk in terms of intimidation that could attach to returning votes to the workplace. The benefits of the 1984 ballots and the use of post were hard won. They have been of great benefit to working people; not perhaps to the union organiser or the militant activist, but to the everyday working man and woman who has benefited from being able to reflect calmly on the merits of a strike ballot in the safety of their own home.

Jo Stevens: The hon. Gentleman refers to intimidation when people cast their ballot. Does he have any real examples of intimidation in ballots?

Mr Djanogly: I am not here to accuse anyone. If the hon. Lady thinks that the 1984 legislation was introduced because there were no instances of intimidation at that time, we need to go back to the history books. I do not intend to do that today. I am not saying that postal ballots will always be free from intimidation, particularly if several members of the same family work in the same place. I appreciate that new clause 7 requires that votes at the workplace are private and free from unfairness, but the question is how far does that go? Does it cover only the voting room or the factory premises? What about beyond the factory gates and the pickets? I am concerned that this could be a retrograde step.

Andy McDonald: The hon. Gentleman talks about intimidation in the workplace. He is a lawyer. Let us have some evidence to back that up, rather than just putting it out there and casting aspersions. Get on and give us some evidence.

Mr Djanogly: As I said before, we are looking at the optimum way of voting. The Opposition’s new clause 9 provides for the possibility of a combination of voting methods to be used, but I note that the combination is to be selected by the union. Unless I have read it wrong —someone might want to put me right—this could imply that workplace-only ballots could, in effect, be reintroduced via the back door. Again, I would see that as a step backwards that should not be supported.

On electronic voting, it could be said that this is where society is heading, a point made very strongly by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), and that union law should take the lead on something that will be generally adopted. I have not seen the most recent opinions of the Electoral Commission on e-voting, but I recall that it had serious concerns about its security a few years ago. Will the Minister please advise the House to what extent he has discussed this with the Electoral Commission, and whether he has reviewed the role of the certification officer with that of the Electoral Commission in the conduct of ballots? In that regard, if in the future we wished to move towards electronic voting generally, could this be effective for unions under existing legislation, such as the provisions in section 54 of the Employment Relations Act 2004? In other words, are the e-voting amendments required at all?

If only because of the technological changes, this has been a useful debate. However, I am not yet convinced, in terms of security, that the proposals are the correct way to go at the current time.

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