First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched a move at the Scottish Parliament that would have seen MSPs handed the power to veto parts of the Trade Union Bill being introduced in Scotland.
But the Scottish Parliament’s presiding officer Tricia Marwick yesterday ruled that these are UK-wide laws and must be decided by MPs at Westminster.
Ms Sturgeon last night joined Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at a Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) rally in Glasgow to voice her opposition to the bill, which would restrict workers’ rights to strike and change political funding rules.
Addressing the rally, she said she would inform David Cameron that Scotland opposed the bill when she met him at Downing Street next week.
Ms Sturgeon told the crowds that trade unions were a force of good in society and attacking them was akin to an attack on human rights.
Ms Marwick wrote in a letter to fair work secretary Roseanna Cunningham that the Scottish Government’s plan for a legislative consent memorandum (LCM) – which would effectively allow MSPs to block certain aspects of the Bill – is “not competent”.
The measures would only affect the Scottish Government in its role as an employer, Ms Marwick said. She added: “In my view any functions so affected are management functions and are not functions within the Scottish ministers’ executive competence.”
The Scottish Government argued the bill, which restricts the time employees can spend on union business and forbids the deduction of dues by direct debit, would impact on employee relations in its devolved agencies.
However Ms Marwick – a veteran SNP MSP who relinquished her party affiliation to take the impartial presiding officer chair – said: “Having given the matter careful consideration and applying the tests set out in the rules, my view is that the parliament’s legislative consent is not required and it is not competent to lodge a legislative consent memorandum.”
A spokeswoman for Ms Sturgeon said ministers will pursue other ways to block reforms, which have met with the overwhelming opposition of MSPs in a Holyrood vote, from being enacted in Scotland.
She said: “We will seek an alternative means of allowing parliament to get its objections across.
“This demonstrates the point that we have been making all along that trade union powers need to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament so that we can properly conduct employee relations in Scotland.
“It is her decision, so we will look at other routes to bring the objections not just of the Scottish Government but of the parliament as expressed in a previous debate.”
Ministers will also seek to secure the devolution of trade union law.
Labour MSPs took the presiding officer to task over her decision in a series of points of order at Holyrood.
Former Labour minister for parliamentary business Patricia Ferguson, a founder member of the Scottish Parliament, asked if standing orders could be changed to accommodate the LCM.
Neil Findlay, a vocal trade unionist and close ally of Mr Corbyn, said MSPs should be able to change Holyrood rules to reject the reserved bill.
Mr Findlay said: “Clearly there is a will across this parliament to reject the Trade Union Bill, and the fact that it does have an impact on what the functions of government are, in particular in relation to facility time and a whole range of features in that bill that are clearly the preserve of the Scottish Government.
“I am asking you, as presiding officer, how we can get an LCM before this parliament because we have cross-party support, with one or two exceptions, to reject this bill.”
Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said: “The SNP now have egg on their faces after trying to play constitutional games in relation to what clearly is a reserved matter for the UK government.”