Privacy: one law for bankers, another for seven million trade union members

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

The UnionHome Thompsons Solicitors Blog


I am not easily surprised by the double standards of this government, but even I was taken aback by its brazen hypocrisy a few days ago when it invoked ‘protection of personal privacy’ to oppose a European Union cap on bankers bonuses.


The government gets all protective about bankers having to disclose details to the EU of their vast rewards but when it comes to the privacy of more than seven million union members whose names, addresses and personal correspondence it wants powers to access they are not just less fussy, they don’t care.


Part 3 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill gives the government’s Certification Officer – and potentially hundreds of his staff and contractors – scope to require unions to hand over membership records and private correspondence.


The government is over-riding the right to privacy in the European Convention on Human Rights for millions of union members – while at the same time invoking the very same right to defend a handful of bankers.


If we needed any more evidence of this being a government for the few and not the many, this could hardly make it clearer.


This harmless-sounding legislation on trade union ‘administration’ is being rushed through Parliament after a cursory consultation over the summer, riding roughshod over trade union concerns.


For years now, unions have had to submit annual membership returns to the government’s Certification Officer (CO).  It’s been open and transparent, giving union members the right to check the records and complain to the CO if something is wrong – and no one has since 2004.


Under this Bill, the government wants to intrude much further by:

  • Requiring unions with more than 10,000 members to appoint an Assurer from among ‘qualified independent persons’ as named or defined by the Government
  • Requiring unions to submit an annual ‘Membership Audit Certificate’ (prepared, in the case of those with more than 10,000 members,  by an Assurer)
  • Giving the Assurer the right to access membership records and require union officers to provide information.
  • Giving the CO and CO staff and CO inspectors and Assurers powers to require production of documents and to make copies of them, including individual membership records and private correspondence from ‘anyone who appears…to be in possession of them’ if there is ‘good reason to do so’.


If the bill goes through, literally hundreds of state personnel and contractors will have the power to access the personal information of more than seven million union members.


The TUC has said: “It is not the business of the State to know who is or who is not a trade union member, and where they live”.


But the government is invoking article 8(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to over-ride data protection laws.


That article says the right to privacy can be limited only by ‘the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’


By implication, the government is saying trade unions are a threat to all these things – and therefore it is okay to do what they propose.


The Bill has come from business secretary Vince Cable’s department, yet again displaying a shocking lack of liberalism from a Liberal Democrat minister – and a complete disregard for internationally recognised privacy and trade union rights.


I hope everyone who values the right to privacy and freedom of association will lobby their MPs to defeat this legislation.  For more information: Click here




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