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02/01/2016 - New Year Message from the General Secretary

PatHarringtonatVSVBrothers and Sisters 2016 will see a number of changes in the Law which will affect British Workers and the Trade Unions which represent them. In my New Year message to Solidarity members I want to explain some of these changes and how they may impact on Solidarity members.

Trade Union Bill

The government's aim behind the Trade Union Bill is to "ensure that strike action only ever takes place on the basis of clear and representative mandates". It also wants to "improve transparency and oversight of trade unions" and "give employers greater chance to prepare for industrial action and put in place contingency plans". Measures include:

  • a minimum 50 per cent turnout in a strike ballot of those eligible to vote (current laws do not specify a participation rate)
  • an additional requirement for essential services workers that 40 per cent of those eligible to vote support the action (the sectors affected are fire, health, education, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning)
  • a requirement for more detail on the strike ballot paper about what's in dispute and the planned action, and more information for employers on the ballot result
  • notice of industrial action to increase from 7 to 14 days
  • the mandate to strike will last four months - action after that will require a further ballot
  • lifting the prohibition on using agency workers to cover for strikers
  • new restrictions on picketing
  • changing the rules on trade unions' political funds so members will have to opt-in to contributing.

Solidarity is concerned, alongside all other unions, that this bill undermines the basic right to strike. Employers will be able to bring in agency workers to break strikes - blacklegs. We are concerned about the high thresholds set for strike ballots and that the government will not allow secure electronic and workplace ballots which would increase turnout.

Solidarity has never had a political fund. If we had one it would be opt in because we believe that it should be an active choice for our members. We don't object to the government making poltical funds opt-in. We do think, however, that this system should be phased in to give other Unions time to adapt their practices. A phased tranition would help to show that this was not an attack on Labour finances motivated by party political considerations.

We are also concerned about the proposed increases in the costs of the Certification Office and that it is intended to pass these on to Unions. The effect on smaller Unions, such as Solidarity, is likely to be very negative. We will fight any attempt to price us out of existence.

National living wage and NMW

From 6 April 2016 a new mandatory ‘National living wage’ (NLW) will apply to workers aged 25 and over. It is expected to come in to law through an amendment to the National Minimum Wage Regulations 2015. The first national living wage will be set at £7.20 (this is the current over-21 national minimum wage rate of £6.70 plus a premium of 50p) and will run alongside the other National Minimum Wage (NMW) rates. The government expects the NLW rate to rise to over £9 by 2020.

The Low Pay Commission, which advises the government on the NMW rate, has been asked to also recommend appropriate levels for the NLW. A policy paper explaining the National Living Wage with information on the rates is available on the Government’s website.

Regulations are to be introduced under the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 to increase the penalty for underpayment of the NMW. Employers paying below the minimum wage currently face a fine equal to 100 per cent of the underpayment owed to each worker, but this will double to 200 per cent of the arrears owed if the debt is not cleared within 14 days. The maximum penalty will remain at the rate of £20,000 per worker (previously the entire fine was capped at £20,000).

Osborne's forecasted “national living wage” has annual rises delivering £9 an hour by 2020 and this will hit jobs. The government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility estimates could cause no more than 60,000 job losses by the end of this parliament. Set against that the reality that 6 million poorly paid workers will benefit — 2.75 million directly because of the rise and 3.25 million in consequence of intra-company pay differentials. Our view is that overall it is better for Btitish workers.

We should also note that the Living Wage Foundation calculates the living wage at present to be £8.25 outside Greater London and £9.40 in the capital. We praise all employers who commit to that (as Lidl did not so long ago). Solidarity wants to see the Living Wage adopted as the standard to aim for with the mandatory 'national living wage'. The government has some way to go before the "national living wage" is acutally a living wage. At present people are forced to rely on benefits and tax credits (which are, effectively, a tax-payer subsidy to bad employers).

Solidarity broadly welcomes government moves on pay but recognises that there is more to be done and that collective bargaining remains an engine powering better wages. We welcome, in particular, larger fines for non-compliance.

Zero hour contracts

Exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts become unenforceable under the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015.

Regulations giving zero hours employees the right not to be unfairly dismissed, and zero hours employees and workers the right not to be subjected to detrimental treatment, for failing to comply with an exclusivity clause, were published on 14 December 2015 and are scheduled to come in to force on 11 January 2016.

Solidarity welcomes these steps but wants a ban on zero hour contracts alltogether.

Whistleblowing

The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 gives the government the power to make regulations prohibiting discrimination by NHS employers against an NHS job applicant for blowing the whistle, and to require those bodies authorised to receive ‘protected disclosures’ to report annually on whether those disclosures have been investigated.

Tribunals

The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 gives the government the power to make regulations on the number of tribunal adjournments available to employers and employees, and to allow employment judges to make cost awards for late adjournments. Regulations are in draft form and are attached to a consultation document published earlier this year.

The Act also creates an additional financial penalty (payable to the state, rather than claimants) for employers that fail to pay compensation awarded by tribunals. The fine will be 50 per cent of the outstanding award, subject to a cap of £5,000. This section of the legislation needs a commencement order to bring it in effect.

Solidarity welcomes these measures. We believe, however, that the additional financial payment should be made to the Claimant.

Apprenticeships

There is to be a levy on large employers to fund 3 million additional apprenticeships over the next five years. In November the government published its response to a consultation on the levy and announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement that the rate for the levy will be 0.5 per cent of an employer’s pay bill. Only employers with pay bills over £3 million (estimated by the government to be less than 2 per cent of all employers) will pay it.

Legislation covering the levy will be included in the Finance Bill 2016 and is due to take effect in April 2017.

Solidarity welcomes these moves. We don't think the scheme is over burdensome on employers and see it as an investment for them and for the Nation.

Grandparents and childcare

The government is planning to extend shared parental leave and pay to working grandparents, with the aim of increasing flexibility and choice for working parents, and to help support the costs of childcare during the first year of a child’s life. There will a consultation on the details on how the extension will work in the first half of 2016, with the aim of implementing the policy by 2018.

Solidairty supports this extension.

Free childcare

The government is planning to double the number of hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 year-olds in working families from the current 15 hours to 30 hours from September 2017. Pilot programmes in some areas will offer 30 hours of free childcare from September 2016.

We welcome the rolling-out of this programme.

It's my hope that 2016 will see more members take an interest in educating themselves about employment law and related areas. Solidarity is a small union but we will try to provide tools to help those who want to be able to represent and work for their colleagues. It is up to us to help balance the power of employers and protect the rights of ordinary British workers. Together we are strong!

Patrick Harrington