In the middle of a pandemic, ministers plan to tie up unions in more red tape

By Tim Sharp TUC senior employment rights officer 

Trade unions have been working flat-out supporting frontline workers during the pandemic, whether they are nurses, teachers or transport workers. But ministers appear to have other priorities. Last month, without much fanfare, the government set out plans to force unions to fund their own regulator, the Certification Officer, and give the post a swathe of new powers including the ability to fine unions and to take complaints from non-union members.

How many complaints is the Certification Officer receiving that she needs this boost to her armoury? The CO’s newly published annual report reveals that she dealt with all of 34 complaints last year. This is one for every 200,000 union members.

The vast majority were dismissed. In one case, the union concerned conceded the case and, in another, the CO found against the union. Not a single enforcement order that would require a union to take any action was imposed. This is no surprise given that unions are democratic organisations accountable to their members and have a strong track record of complying with their legal duties.

The new proposals were originally contained in the Trade Union Act 2016 but successive governments haven’t sought to implement the plans, which mostly require more parliamentary votes. So it is mightily strange that ministers have decided that now is the time to dust them down and allocate under-pressure civil servants and valuable parliamentary time to them.

The government’s plans include a levy on unions to pay for the Certification Officer and new powers for her to fine unions tens of thousands of pounds for statutory breaches. Under the proposals, she would be able to accept complaints about unions from anyone – not just union members as at present.

This is the wrong set of priorities for the government at the wrong time. Unions are devoting huge resources to supporting workers, many of them central to tackling Covid-19. They shouldn’t be distracted by having to adjust to new rules at short notice.

Under the current plans, unions would have to pay £1.15m next year to find the CO’s activities. This comes at a time when many workers find their wages under pressure. In contrast, political parties do not pay to fund their regulator, the Electoral Commission.

Particularly alarming is the scope for these expenses to rise quickly. The government wants the levy to be capped at 2.5% of a union’s income. This would raise many multiples of the CO’s current budget. It is not hard to imagine a future CO with great ambitions, or under pressure from anti-union ministers and campaign groups, deciding to embark on a swathe of new investigations, funded by the unions themselves.

The legislation to implement these measures is expected in the autumn, giving unions little time to process them before they come into force in the spring. This will inevitably have an impact on the attention they can give to members. The only decent thing at this time is for ministers to put these measures back on the shelf and join with unions and their members in rebuilding the country after the pandemic.

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