Former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake has said he is "delighted" after the government confirmed that it was ditching long-standing plans to end the automatic "check-off" deduction of union fees from the pay packets of public sector staff.
Under plans included in the Trade Union Bill — which is currently undergoing report stage in the House of Lords — all civil servants and staff in the wider public sector who belong to a union would have had to switch to direct debits or make other arrangements to pay their fees.
Ministers argued that ending the “outdated practice” would “modernise the relationship" between unions and their members and give employees more control over their subscriptions. But trade unions have attacked the move as an attempt to undermine their finances, and pointed out that check off continues to be used across the private sector.
Matt Hancock vows to scrap automatic union fee payments across the civil service
Former civil service head Lord Kerslake brands government "authoritarian" over Trade Union Bill
Speaking in the House of Lords on Tuesday, Cabinet Office minister Lord Bridges confirmed that the government would back the main points in an amendment tabled by Conservative peer Lord Balfe, meaning that individual public sector employers will now be free to keep check-off in place if they wish, provided that unions meet the cost of administration.
CSW's sister site PoliticsHome subsequently reported that the climbdown came after unions threatened to ease their pro-European Union campaigning if concessions were not granted ahead of June's referendum.
"One of the many lessons I've learnt is that when ministers stand at this despatch box and face cannons to the right of them, cannons to the left of them and cannons in front of them - and maybe even behind them - it's usually best to pause and to ask the reason why," Bridges said. "And, uncomfortable though this may be, it is nothing like as uncomfortable as charging on."
Bridges said the government had "never" intended to undermine the "crucial role" played by unions, but acknowledged the strength of feeling across the House on the possible impact of the plans.
"Arguments have been made with considerable vim and vigour that by ending check-off and moving to direct debit those on low pay and especially those who have pay day loans may have to cease being trade union members or have to pay extra bank charges," he said.
"Again, my Lords, this is not our intention and never has been. And to show that the government means this and to avoid further acrimony on this issue, the government will support the principles behind Lord Balfe's amendment."
The move was immediately welcomed by Kerslake, the former head of the civil service who supported Balfe's amendment and who, earlier this year, branded the plans "demeaning" and said it was "impossible to see why any fair person would want to remove this very basic service”.
In light of the government's concession, however, Kerslake said he was now in the "happy position" of having to tear up a planned speech denouncing the proposals.
"I think it was clear to anyone who looked at the detail that the government's proposals on check-off stood to do considerable damage both to the unions themselves and to their members and potential members," said Kerslake.
The crossbench peer said he had been "particularly concerned" about the impact of the planned changes on "low-paid, mostly female workers" who he said could have lost out "on the protection and benefits of trade union membership".
Kerslake: "In a situation where the unions had signalled clearly that they were willing to pay the costs it felt to me that the last credible argument on this issue had fallen away."
"Given its impact, I think many noble Lords felt that the arguments that the arguments in favour of it, to put it mildly, were not convincing.
He added: "In a situation where the unions had signalled clearly that they were willing to pay the costs it felt to me that the last credible argument on this issue had fallen away. So I'm absolutely delighted that ministers have listened on this issue and changed their view."
The changes have already been given a cautious welcome by the Public and Commercial Services Union – the largest of the civil service trade unions – who had argued that the plans were an explicit attack on its organisation.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “This is welcome news and shows the pressure we are applying is working, but the Trade Union Bill is rotten to the core and no amount of tinkering by the government can change that."
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, meanwhile said he was glad the government had "seen sense". He tweeted: "Trade Union Bill still flawed but this is a real improvement".
Update: 20/4: This story has been updated to include reference to the European Union referendum