Former civil service head Lord Kerslake brands government "authoritarian" over Trade Union Bill

Former head of the civil service speaks out against plans to toughen union laws in latest high-profile intervention

By Civil Service World

11 Jan 2016

Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, has his out at the government over plans to tighten up the laws affecting trade unions.

The Trade Union Bill, which will have its second reading the House of Lords today, includes a number of measures that have sparked controversy, including a ban on strikes by workers in key public services unless a ballot is supported by at least 40% of those eligible to vote.

The Bill would also impose a 50% turnout threshold for all industrial action, and would allow employers to bring in agency staff to cover for striking workers. Ministers have argued that the bill is needed to prevent firms and public services from being brought to a halt by "handful of workers" and will ensure more robust workplace democracy. But Labour has branded the legislation "draconian" while the TUC points out that the number of days lost through strike action is currently at an all-time low.

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Kerslake, who stepped down from the top civil service job in 2014 after two years in post, echoes those criticisms in a piece published in The Guardian today.

The crossbench peer writes: "As someone who was on the receiving end of some tough and bruising encounters with the public sector trade unions during my time in central and local government, you might expect me to welcome this bill. I most assuredly do not. 

"While there are quite reasonable steps to increase transparency, the main thrust of the measures seems to be both partisan and disproportionate to the supposed problems that they are seeking to address."

The former head of the civil service says that while some measures in the bill involve "quite reasonable steps to increase transparency", the thrust of the bill is "partisan and disproportionate".

"Taken with the other measures being put forward by the government – curtailing the powers of the Lords, watering down the Freedom of Information Act, cutting the so-called ‘short money’ to support the opposition parties – they demonstrate a worryingly authoritarian streak in this government that is not comfortable with scrutiny and challenge."

Kerslake – who also served as permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government between 2010 and 2015 – has been increasingly vocal on a range of issues in recent months, speaking out against plans to extend the Right to Buy to housing association properties and attacking the government's review of Freedom of Information laws

He is also carrying out a review of he Treasury on behalf of shadow chancellor John McDonnell, with the Labour frontbencher asking Kerslake to look at whether the finance ministry is "fit for purpose".

Meanwhile, Labour today claims that it it could see an annual £6m income cut as a result of changes in the way it collects money from trade unions included in the Bill.

The party believes three million fewer member of the largest unions would contribute to its coffers if rules requiring them to “opt in” are passed. Currently members of unions affiliated to Labour automatically pay towards the party alongside their subscription.

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