Partisan and pointless: The Lobbying Bill’s attack on trade unions
This week, charities and civil society groups have been deservedly celebrating a pause in the passage of Andrew Lansley’s controversial Lobbying Bill, with hints of concessions on what has been widely condemned as a threat to free speech. Closer inspection though shows that the pause isn’t what it seems, and the focus of this dogs dinner of a Bill has turned with a vengeance on trade unions.
It turns out it’s only part two of the Bill that has been paused for scrutiny, and in order to keep to their timetable, the government have brought forward part three by two months, with a snap debate and vote called for Monday. In providing scrutiny time on civil society campaigns during election periods, scrutiny of some onerous new regulations for unions has been sacrificed.
Under the proposed regulations, unions will have to share membership lists with a number of external investigtors. The government’s Certification Officer will have powers to view and copy information on members, and access correspondence. Unions will be open to challenges on their membership records, including from employers in disputes or even vexatious complaints from groups opposed to trade unionism. These challenges will be investigated by agents appointed from a government approved list.
This will send a chill down the spine of many union members. Until now, whether or not you join a union has been a confidential matter. Many people are obviously proud of their union membership and happy to be open about it, but in some workplaces, members will have a justified fear of discrimination. The government will claim there will be safeguards built in, but we’re only just starting to find out how far the construction blacklisting scandal has reached – I for one am not ready to trust the government, or employers’ auditors, with a change of this magnitude.
It’s not even as if there’s a reason to make this change. Unions already have a duty to maintain accurate lists, and indeed there’s no incentive for them not to do so – it would only hamper the effective management of their organisations. The only time it really gets important to other parties is during statutory ballots, which are already very tightly regulated, with unions having to pay for independent ballot scrutineers, and with processes and membership being open to challenges from employers in the courts.
One thing is certain though, it will cost. Unions will need rule changes (often including emergency conferences), and will have to resource new reporting systems, to meet these pointless new demands. The government’s estimated £400,000 cost to the union movement looks like a hefty underestimate.
Charities and organisations involved in campaigning aren’t going to be subject to this extra regulation. Amnesty, Liberty or 38 Degrees won’t have to open up their member lists. Nor for that matter will political parties. Unions seem to have been chosen merely because the government want to damage them: to tie them up in red tape (from a government supposedly seeking to cut regulation, not increase it), to make them waste their members’ subscription income, and to deter vulnerable workers from joining for fear of employer reprisal.
This is all pretty strange for a Bill that was originally designed to tackle the influence of big money in politics, after a string of lobbying scandals, with a number of parliamentarians being seen as too close to moneyed lobbying interests. It might be a convenient distraction for a government still bogged down in lobbying sleaze, but how you tackle parliamentary corruption by increasing union bureaucracy is anyone’s guess.
There’s only a couple of days left before the crunch debate in the Lords. We’ve been trying to brief members of the House of Lords on the complications of union membership, but lopping two months off the timetable means we won’t get a chance to talk to all the Peers who would have an interest in the debate, or encourage more of them to attend for a crucial aspect of a Bill that most people think is being paused.
We need to get the voices and concerns of trade unionists across to the Peers who will be joining the debate on Monday. Please help now by visiting our campaign site, Going To Work, where you can “adopt a Peer”, and be allocated a member of the House of Lords to email about this. Your messages will be really important in raising the alarm over this rushed, damaging and pointless new regulation.