Unions21 unions and the Lobbying Bill

Unions21 is a trade union network that shares best practice and new ideas between its members.  For the first time, its steering committee have decided that Unions21 should put forward a position on a government bill.

 

The legislation in question is the ‘Transparency of lobbying, non party campaigning and trade union administration’ – aka the Lobbying Bill.  The Bill has been has been highly controversial and drawn criticism from voluntary groups and charities as well as trade unions.

 

The case against the bill centres around it’s restriction on campaigning in the run up to an election and a new administrative burden on trade unions which over-rides the right to privacy of their members.
It is perhaps a mark of how far the government has deviated from moderation in its approach to legislation in this case that professional unions, not affiliated to the Labour Party, have put their case to the Government individually, through the TUC and for the first time via Unions21.

 

Views on the “chilling” effect of the bill are covered below  in the submission from the Royal College of Midwives. Issues around the requirement for unions to hand-over membership records and private correspondence  are set out below in a submission from the FDA.

 

Dan Whittle, Director, Unions21

 

The Royal College of Midwives view

New constituency spending limits.
Organisations do not necessarily organise on a constituency basis. By placing low spending limits on campaigning in a specific constituency, there is the potential for legitimate campaigning by organisations to be hampered. How do they account for which bit of campaigning takes place in which constituency? Take, for example, a campaign started to save the maternity unit of a local hospital from closure; the unit may serve people from across an entire city, covering many constituencies, if activists campaign in the city centre, is that all accounted for in the constituency covering the city centre, even though it is aimed at all the city’s residents and people passing by will be from different constituencies, and indeed from constituencies outside the city? Simply put, it would be problematic, bureaucratic and potentially discourage groups from running perfectly legitimate campaigns on issues of public concern.

We would support a move to allow unions of a certain size, say fewer than 30000 members to self audit if it became clear that it was not going to be possible to make more wide ranging changes to the legislation.

Coalitions.

There is a flaw in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which was best explained last week by Lord Tyler (Lords Hansard, 15th January 2014, column 272):
“The fundamental problem with the so-called coalition arrangements in the 2000 Act is as follows. If, let us say, Friends of Earth intends to spend £300,000 on a campaign about climate change and does so in coalition with, for example, Oxfam, which contributes £25,000, under PPERA both are deemed to have spent, or to plan to spend, £325,000. Clearly, that is absurd, because that would mean that Oxfam, which had contributed only £25,000 to that campaign, might well then be precluded from doing anything else on other issues, which it is clear was not intended by the 2000 Act and which, I hope, is not something that we would intend to do today.”

An amendment (39A) was proposed to rectify this anomaly, but it fell. The RCM believes that organisations should be enabled to work together on issues of common concern within reasonable rules; allowing this anomaly to remain on the Statute Book militates against such joint campaigning, for example by trade unions and on issues such as rights at work.

The new, lower spending limit for England.
The overall spending limit for all campaigning in England has been cut and is written into the bill, which would make no allowance for the effect of inflation over time. A big organisation with lots of members could be severely hamstrung by such a limit, but why should it be so constrained? If hundreds of thousands of people have joined an organisation, why shouldn’t it be able to engage all  of them in campaigning without fearing a breach of the spending limit. This is a real constraint on the freedom of individuals to come together and campaign on issues of concern to them. Additionally for organisations that are highly devolved, such as the National Federation of Women’s Institutes – organised mainly on a branch and county basis – this overall spending cap could be very hard to implement.”

 

The FDA view

“The FDA is a trade union affiliated to the TUC. We are politically independent and are not affiliated to any political party. The FDA rules clearly state that the FDA is, like our members who are senior managers and professionals in the civil service, politically neutral.

FDA is a strictly neutral trade union.  The proposal in this Bill that we will have to secure an independent assurer’s certificate for our membership information and be liable to provide substantial levels of information to the Certification Officer or third parties acting on his behalf, give particular issues of concern for us and our members.  Ministers have struggled to set out why this is necessary or desirable although some of the Bill’s supporters have pointed to an intended focus on the political links of some trade unions, however, the FDA is in the majority of unions in the UK in that it does not provide financial or quasi-financial support to any political party and has no political fund.

Firstly, the need to finance an independent certificate for the FDA’s membership database will result in a substantial cost and administration burden that will be proportionately higher for an organization of our size than the majority of other unions affected who are substantially larger and better placed to absorb this cost.  It is not clear what benefit there is of this for the public or FDA members over and above what would be achieved through a self-certification process, such as that proposed for unions with less than 10,000 members. We already have a strong legal obligation and every practical incentive to hold accurate membership records.  In light of this we are seeking amendment of this threshold to allow medium sized unions – who are largely industry specific associations – to self-certify if indeed any certification is required:

Clause 37, page 40, line 26 – replace “10,000” with “30,000”

Secondly, the issue of confidentiality of membership seems particularly threatened by the proposals in this bill.  The freedom for civil servants to join a trade union is one that the government supports in the knowledge that government has no right to know which particular individuals are members.  It is a key question that the FDA is asked by prospective members and it is an issue we take very seriously.  We are therefore deeply concerned at the extension of the powers given to the Certification Officer, who is acting as an agent of the state in this regard, and the potential for the Certification Officer’s powers of investigation to be engaged by a third party.

The potential for individuals’ details to be lost, published or passed to FDA members’ employers is significant.  BIS has sought to assure us that data protections in the Bill will be sufficient to ensure employers will not be able to access membership data.  Our concern is that for civil servants this assurance is undermined by the fact that the Certification Officer is an agent of the state and FDA members are state employees.  Notwithstanding the likely conflict between these proposals and our members’ rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, we are seeking the removal of these extensions to the Certification Officer’s powers.”

 

The Thompsons Solicitors view

The chilling effect of Part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill on democracy has been widely recognised – but there has been far less debate about the equally serious implications of the Bill’s third section on the right to privacy and freedom of association.
Part 3 gives the state alarming powers to require unions to hand-over membership records and private correspondence.

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.
Now the government wants to intrude much further by:

Requiring unions with more than 0,000 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 British Citizens.

 

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