Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Opposing the Trade Union Bill in Parliament - guest blog Ian Murray MP

Ian Murray MP, Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, along with Stephen Doughty MP, outline the Labour Group's opposition to the Trade Union Bill in the UK Parliament, and the joint campaigning against it.

There is a grim irony to the fact that the Tory Government’s Trade Union Bill coincides with the 100th anniversary of the death of Keir Hardie, a hero of the workers’ movement and the man perhaps most responsible for forging the close links between the Labour Party and the Trades Union movement that endure to this day. As my colleague Stephen Doughty MP, Labour’s lead spokesperson on this Bill, has stated, Labour MPs will oppose every aspect of this pernicious Bill with every sinew.


Since Hardie’s era, the Labour Party has built on the foundations he established and developed a close relationship with the Trades Union movement, based on mutual interest, reliance and support. Every trade unionist and good employer knows that businesses thrive when employees and employers work together for the benefit of the business.  Viewed in this context, the Bill is not just an affront to civil liberties; it is a devious and dishonest attempt to rupture that relationship and to place workers and employers at loggerheads. As Jeremy Corbyn has said, it infringes international labour rights and conventions. What’s more, it is just bad legislation: transparently partisan, poorly conceived and porously drafted.  


This Bill has so many holes that it is difficult to choose which thread to pull on: arbitrary turnout and voting thresholds that, had they been applied at the General Election, would have seen many Tory MPs fail to get elected, and which will, if enforced, have a disproportionate impact upon women seeking parity of pay and conditions. A profusion of petty regulations to smother unions in red tape, and changes to political funding which could undermine successful campaigns such as the Hope not Hate, or UNITE’s “Fair Tips" and USDAW’s “Freedom from Fear” campaigns. A self-serving redefinition of “essential” public services. Finally, absurd restrictions on facility time, and the abrogation of check off, a proposal that former Lib Dem MP, Danny Alexander – hardly a totem of the Trade Union movement – previously dismissed as pointless and open to legal challenge.  In essence, we are dealing with a full-frontal assault on the Trades Unions and Labour movements.


The Government’s justification for the Bill is utterly spurious. They argue the need to reduce the incidence of industrial action – citing the recent rail strikes in London as an example. However, and as Alan Johnson MP pointed out when the Bill was debated at second reading, industrial action has declined significantly over the past 30 years. Since 2010, an average of 647,000 days have been lost, compared with 7,213,000 lost in the 1980s and these proposals would not have prevented the London Tube strike or that CWU postal strike that had huge turnouts and massive support.


Labour has led the charge against this Bill and I have been working very closely with the Shadow BiS Team on this issue, and with Stephen Doughty MP, who has been taking the Bill through Parliament.  We have tabled over 70 amendments to try and derail the Bill.  As well as opposing the Bill overall, in areas where we believe it to direct contravene of the devolution settlement, we have taken a more focused approach, tabling amendments to protect workers across the UK form its worst aspects.  In its assault on workers’ rights and entitlements, this Bill is no respecter of boundaries and borders, and while the Bill is itself divisive, we must show solidarity in opposing it.


That is why Labour’s amendments apply equally to every part of the country: the Greater London Authority; English local authorities; and the devolved administrations in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. SNP MPs have already supported many of these amendments, and we welcome their support.  


If we are to defeat this Bill, as I believe we can, we need collective action across the UK. The Supreme Court judgement on the abolition of the Agricultural Wages board in Wales has given us grounds for hope. Carwyn Jones, Labour’s First Minister in Wales, is vigorously opposing the Bill as infringing on devolved policy, and is poised to demand a Legislative Consent Motion, for which the above ruling provides legal precedent, should the Government proceed regardless.


In Scotland, our Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale MSP has urged all Scottish local authorities to agree a motion of non-compliance, and every Labour-led administration in Scotland has done so. We need everyone else to follow suit and the Scottish Government to encourage them to do so. We also need the Scottish Government to table their own LCM, and to state clearly and unequivocally that they will not abide by any Bill that affects the devolved settlement in Scotland. This Bill encroaches upon devolved public services so a Scottish LCM is both necessary and justified.


The Trade Union Bill is part of a wider Tory agenda to curtail rights and quell dissent; an agenda which encapsulates the charities gagging bill, fees for employment tribunals, the dilution of individual rights, the undermining of collective rights, and cuts to legal aid. All those who believe in democratic rights and sound industrial relations have a duty to oppose it.   We are doing all we can in the Parliamentary process and we welcome the support of the STUC and member unions.  What this Tory Government forgets is what we have always known: that effective trade unions are good for employees, good for businesses, good for jobs and good for the economy.  This Trade Union Bill is an all out assault on them all.


Monday, 19 October 2015

STUC General Secretary at SNP conference

On the morning of Saturday 17th October, Grahame Smith our General Secretary got to his feet, delivered a speech to SNP conference and received a standing ovation. It was described as an ‘historic’ moment.  STUC leaders haven’t tended to be sought for, or to seek out, prime platform spots at the SNP conference.

The subject was the Trade Union Bill and the SNP took the unusual step of suspending their Standing Orders to allow Grahame to speak in the debate, on a motion proposed by Chris Stephens MP and seconded by Roseanna Cunningham MSP. 

Now, to be sure, for me as a veteran of student, Labour Party and trade union democracy, it seemed an odd procedure.  But that is a matter for the SNP.  For us it represented an opportunity to speak to the party of Government, supported by at least half of the Scottish population (and of trade union members) on the greatest existential threat to our movement for a generation, during a debate on a motion which was completely opposed the Bill.  Grahame also used the opportunity to raise the highly concerning current threat to the Scottish steel industry.

It is however, a decision that has been criticised. A number of trade union and Labour activists took to social media to accuse the STUC of ‘endorsing the SNP’ ‘abandoning Labour’ and ‘naively falling into an SNP trap’.

The argument (I think) goes thus.  The SNP are a right wing, anti-trade union party masquerading as the opposite.  By speaking during one of their debates the STUC has effectively endorsed them and in so doing damaged Labour.

Just for the record, the STUC is a not a political party affiliated organisation, most of its unions are not affiliated to Labour and probably fewer than half of its members pay the Labour levy. The STUC has spoken at Labour Party conferences for as long as anyone can remember, and last week, Grahame spoke at the Green Party conference.  Were a similar invitation to be received from, say, the Tories, I would be recommending that we accepted, though I wouldn’t be able to guarantee that the assembled delegates would like what they heard!

It is certainly true that the SNP was keen to highlight the fact that Grahame was speaking at the conference and that a key theme of the weekend was, as a number of journalists noted, a clear attempt to connect with working class voters. On the Trade Union Bill, their MPs are pledged to vote out the whole Bill, and are working closely with the STUC, TUC and Labour MPs to effect its defeat.  The Scottish Government opposes the Bill in its entirety (including, incidentally the political fund clauses even though it might be to their advantage);  is investigating whether an argument can be made for a Legislative Consent Motion, and is considering how it can refuse to co-operate with legislation if it is enacted.

It should be recognised and applauded, that Scottish Labour, including Labour councils have gone somewhat further than this.  Some have already stated their intention to refuse to comply with aspects of the Bill such as caps on facility time; the removal of the right of employees to pay their union dues through the payroll; and the use of agency workers to break strikes.  The Green Party has adopted a similar view.

This is enormously welcome and, whilst the primary aim at this point is to defeat the Bill, the STUC will continue to press all parties, including the SNP, to support a non-compliance position, if this nasty Bill in enacted.

This approach reflects a wider one, which will continue.  When the SNP Government does things which we disagree with, we will say so - as we did, last Wednesday when we criticised the First Minster on youth employment figures.

But what we won’t do is to pass up the opportunity to work with the Scottish Government in areas of broad agreement, nor with the SNP on our key priority campaigns.

There are some, on all sides of the party political divide in Scotland who would like the STUC to fight a proxy battle on their behalf to do damage to the other.  Our members and their interests are implicitly seen as acceptable collateral in a bigger war for political power.

This isn’t going to happen.
Dave Moxham

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Is youth unemployment at a 10 year low?

On Sunday's Marr Show (at 37.00 mins), Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister stated that "youth unemployment is at its lowest level in a decade". If true, this is surely good news. People worry about youth unemployment for very good reasons. Like all varieties of unemployment, it is a terrible waste of resources for the country as a whole and expensive to the public purse. Periods of unemployment, particularly if prolonged, do significant damage to a young person's future life chances. There is a duty therefore on politicians of all stripes to ensure interventions on the subject are evidence-based and precise.

So is the First Minister correct? Well, she referred to the 'level' not the rate of youth unemployment so let's start with the latest (published 16 September) numbers drawn from the Annual Population Survey:

Chart 1: Youth unemployment, level (000s), Scotland 2004-March 2015

On the 18-24 years measure [note: I've chosen to focus on the 18-24 years group but have included information on the 16-17 sand 16-24 groups for completeness. All the arguments presented below hold true for both 18-24 and 16-24 groups. The 16-17 group is a special case as we shall see] it is clear that unemployment remains significantly higher than it was a decade ago: the latest figures, covering the April 2014-March 2015 period, confirm that 51,000 young people were unemployed compared with 36,000 during the period April 2004-March 2005. The last time the figure was lower than 51,000 was in the July 2008-June 2009 period when 18-24 years unemployment was 46,000. 

However, focusing on the level (i.e. the number of young people unemployed) isn't very illuminating. If for the sake of argument the economically active population aged 18-24 had doubled over the decade then a figure of 51,000 would represent a very decent outcome (i.e. a much lower rate) . So it makes sense to look at the rate:

Chart 2: Youth unemployment, rate (%), Scotland 2004-March 2015

The current 18-24 years rate of 14.5% is 4.1% higher than it was a decade ago; it was last lower in 2008. 

The above measures are based on the Annual Population Survey which are the most reliable statistics available for employment/unemployment/inactivity by age in Scotland. The APS is based on a sample size four times larger than the Labour Force Survey from which the headline figures we hear discussed each month are drawn. However, ONS also publishes an 'experimental' series of data on employment and unemployment by age. This series has the advantage of being more up-to-date (the latest figures cover the May-July 2015 period) but ONS are careful to apply the following strong caveat: "These estimates are derived from the same data source as the headline figures, but due to the relatively small samples sizes and subsequent sampling variability, the figures should be used with caution and are designated as experimental statistics".

The STUC has in the past taken issue with the Scottish Government using these statistics whilst failing to note the caveat. But do the experimental statistics support the proposition that youth unemployment is at its lowest level in a decade?

Chart 3: Youth unemployment, level (000s), Scotland, 2004-2015 (experimental series)

Even on this measure, 18-24 years unemployment is currently higher than it was a decade ago (54,000 compared to 47,000). However, this is a more volatile series and the number of 18-24 year olds unemployed increased by 9,000 between March-May 2015 and May-July. So if the First Minister had been speaking to Marr before the latest statistics were published on 16 September, her statement would have been technically correct on this measure. Perhaps the error is simply attributable to a short lag in updating official advice/Ministerial lines.

What does the unemployment rate from the experimental series reveal?

Chart 4: Youth unemployment, rate (%), Scotland, 2004-2015 (experimental series)

The current 18-24 rate of 14% compares to a rate of 12.9% exactly a decade ago. However, as with the level above, the rate did drop to 11.8% earlier this year. So, again, it would have been technically accurate to argue before the latest statistics were published in September that youth unemployment on this measure was lower than a decade ago.

It would have been possible but to have done so would have been more than a bit mischievous. As the charts above show, both the level and the rate fell during the period between 2004 and 2007 hitting lows of 32,000 and 8.8% respectively in Nov-Jan 2007. Surely a more accurate gauge of progress is to compare current performance against pre-recession peaks/troughs not an entirely arbitrary time period of a decade?

But does any of this really matter? Is the unemployment rate really an effective gauge of the position of young people in the labour market? I would argue it isn't and would refer people to this excellent 'heretical' post by Mike Campbell for an explanation as to why. As he points out, the unemployment rate measures the proportion of economically active (in work or looking for work) young people who are out of a job. The denominator is not the whole population aged 18-24. Economic activity amongst this age group is always relatively low because so many are in full-time education. Many young people looking for a job will also be in full-time education. If the number of unemployed young people remains constant, and the numbers going into full-time education increase, this would show as an increase in the unemployment rate.

So what more do we know about young people in the labour market in Scotland in 2015? 

Chart 5: Employment, Unemployment and Inactivity, rates (%), Scotland 2004-2015

The gradual fall in unemployment since 2012 is mainly attributable to rising inactivity; the increase in employment has been extremely slow although the very latest statistics - not yet sufficient to show a clear trend - are more encouraging. If the rising numbers of inactive young people simply reflect more entering full-time education then this it is clearly not a trend to fret about unduly. If however more young people are simply leaving the labour market altogether and not engaging in education or training then the Scottish Government - and the rest of us - should be extremely concerned. 

Chart 6: Inactivity rate (%), Scotland, 2004-2015

The huge leap in the 16-17 year olds inactivity rate almost certainly reflects the higher numbers staying on at school. We know that the number of 16-19 years olds not in education, employment or training has fallen significantly over the last decade. Of more concern is the 18-24 years group. Rising inactivity might simply reflect higher numbers in full-time education (and not looking for a job) but I'm unaware of official statistics we can draw on here.

But the slow increase in employment is a concern. It is unambiguously the case that fewer young people are in work than a decade ago whilst the employment rate for the over 50s has increased significantly. There is a worry that young people are being squeezed out of entry level jobs. We also know that young people are much more likely to be on a zero hour contract or paid less than the national minimum wage or the living wage. The under-25s will not benefit from the introduction of the 'National Living Wage'.

In conclusion, the First Minister was incorrect to state that youth unemployment is lower than a decade ago although it is certainly possible that, when the new statistics are published tomorrow, this may become true. My concern is that by focusing only on unemployment, and being guilty of using what at best are incomplete and out of date statistics, the First Minister is in danger of leaving the impression that young people's situation in the Scottish labour market is improving much more rapidly than is the case. One day politicians may start using labour market statistics with due care and precision. We're not there yet.

Stephen Boyd