On 15 October 2014 the Government published the report of the independent review of the law governing industrial disputes.
The review was commissioned by the Government in April in the wake of the high profile industrial dispute between INEOS and Unite at Grangemouth Chemicals and Refining plant. The Grangemouth dispute rose to prominence because of the allegations widely reported in the press of inappropriate and intimidatory tactics used by Unite. Unite strongly denied any wrongdoing, and argued that it was merely carrying out a lawful protest.
The intention of the Government was that the review would be conducted by a panel of three. This panel would be headed by Bruce Carr QC and was to include representatives from the CBI and TUC. The review was initially asked to provide the following:
1. An assessment of the alleged use of ‘extreme tactics’ in industrial disputes, including ‘leverage tactics’;
2. An assessment of the existing legal framework to prevent inappropriate or intimidatory actions in trade disputes; and
3. Proposals and recommendations for change.
It was the hope of the Government that the review would be able to put forward proposals and recommendations which were based on evidence and opinions gathered from both sides of industrial disputes, and that these proposals would then form the basis for future reform of industrial relations legislation.
Unfortunately, the review was not able to proceed as initially planned. The TUC declined the invitation to be part of the review panel, and subsequently prevented all TUC affiliated unions from providing any substantive responses to the review.
It was the position of the TUC that the review was merely “a headline grabbing political stunt”. The impartiality of Bruce Carr QC was also brought into question by a number of trade unions. The general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey claimed that Bruce Carr QC had “taken his orders from the Tories to provide cover for the further round of laws to shackle trade unionism which they will introduce if they win power next year and he will be well paid for it”, and the general secretary of the PCS referred to him as “one of the bossses’ QCs of choice who has carved out a career arguing against workers’ rights”.
These claims were strongly denied by Mr Carr who had been clear from the outset of the review that he wanted to hear all sides of the story.
Despite numerous attempts to engage with TUC affiliated trade unions their position remained, in the words of the review, one of “vehement opposition”. As the review was unable to obtain sufficient evidence from both perspectives it became unfeasible for the review to proceed as initially envisaged.
In July 2014 it was announced that, due to the political environment and lack of responses, the scope and focus of the review was to be shifted. The review would no longer make any proposals or recommendations for change as it was felt that it would be regarded as lacking the necessary independence for its conclusions to carry credibility.
The final report therefore merely sets out what happened at a number of key industrial disputes and provides a summary of the existing legal framework.
The review of the legal framework is comprehensive and provides an overview of the relevant law surrounding industrial disputes. However, the report does not make any commentary on, or analysis of, the effectiveness of the legal framework, and therefore whilst the final report does provide a useful overview of the current legal position it is limited in its usefulness.
There has been high profile criticism of the current legal framework which is seen by some as inadequate. It has been argued that the law has failed to adapt to new technological developments and social changes, and that it is in need of modernisation. Many hoped that this independent review would address these issues and set out sensible proposals based on evidence and opinions gathered from both sides of industrial disputes. Equally, trade unions are concerned about potential attempts to curtail workers’ ability to participate in industrial action. However, it is now clear that the final report will not be the catalyst for legislative reform which many were hoping for when the review was first announced.
The future of industrial relations in the United Kingdom is unclear at present. Reform of the current industrial relations legislative framework is likely to be a contentious issue in the run up to the 2015 general election. The main political parties are likely to have different views on what reforms, if any, are needed.
In July the Conservative Party set out its proposals for modernisation of industrial relations law. These included:
1. Introduction of a 50 per cent turnout threshold for strikes;
2. Updating the current Code of Practice on Picketing to take into account changes in technology and making it legally binding;
3. Making illegal picketing a criminal offence;
4. A requirement for unions to provide specific details about the nature of disputes on the ballot paper, and a requirement to vote on each aspect of the disputes;
5. A requirement for the proposed action to be set out clearly on the ballot paper; and
6. Ending ‘rolling mandates’ by removing the current requirement that the initial action be brought within 4 weeks of a ballot, and setting a firm time limit of 3 months on the duration of the mandate rather than for as long as the dispute remains live.
These proposals have attracted widespread criticism from trade unions and other political parties. Following the announcement, Vince Cable referred to the strike law proposals as “simply potty” and stated that he did not think that the reforms are needed. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, claimed that the proposals were “designed to make legal strikes close to impossible” and that they would “fundamentally shift the balance of power in British workplaces in favour of the employer”.
The response of the Labour Party to the proposals was that they are “desperate stuff by a Conservative Party that has given up any pretence of standing up for working people”. The Labour Party have yet to set out their own proposals for the future of industrial relations, but it appears likely that they will take a different approach than that set out by the Conservative Party.
The future of industrial relations appears to hinge on the outcome of the 2015 general election, and radically different approaches are likely to be taken depending on which party (or parties) form the next Government.
In summary, the report was largely a missed opportunity to progress the debate, and as a consequence we are therefore unlikely to see any further developments in industrial relations legislation before the General Election.