“If passed, this law will not only curtail campaigning efforts, but also give the government access to membership records”
A vote taken in the House of Lords on Tuesday is a significant step in the government’s challenge to the democratic rights of UK citizens. The¬†transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill¬†‚Äď aka the gagging bill ‚Äď which the coalition government has insisted on pushing through parliament, is intent on severely hindering third-party campaigning.
¬†The bill is on the cusp of royal assent, which is due to take place this April. Tuesday saw the Lords vote through the bill without the amendments they had previously made. The amendments were overturned in the House of Commons last week and would have made the bill slightly more palatable. However, as it now stands, the bill will have a devastating effect on trade unions, which is surely the government’s intention. Unions will be beset with endless bureaucracy. It’s a trap.
¬†The bill will allow government-appointed trade union certification officers to impose fines on unions for not having a completely accurate membership list. Anyone involved in large membership organisations, not least political parties, will understand the complexity in keeping their records 100% accurate. People are constantly joining, retiring or changing jobs. It is a recipe for failure. But that will result in a hefty fine and potentially a gag on the union, preventing it from communicating with its members.
¬†Of equal concern is that employers, who often agree to allow union subs to be deducted from an employee’s monthly pay so are complicit in this process, will now be able to raise complaints about the membership records of the union. At times when negotiations are ongoing between a trade union and an organisation, who is to say that this power will not be exploited?
¬†Most worrying is the access the government is giving itself to union membership records. In the wake of the blacklisting scandal last year, thousands of people who have opted to keep their union membership private will now have to allow the government access. It is deplorable, and potentially in breach of¬†article 8 and 11 of the European convention on human rights.
¬†Many other campaigning groups have spoken out against the caps the bill will impose on them, with overall spending limits slashed by 60% in the runup to a general election regardless of involvement in the political process. The implications are clear for trade unions that do significant work in local communities and help fund local party candidates in council and parliamentary elections.
¬†There has been loud, stringent opposition from a huge number of¬†charitable and campaigning organisations, from the British Legion to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, as well as the Electoral Commission and Citizens Advice Bureau. The UN rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association,¬†Maina Kiai, joined the foray, said: “Although sold as a way to level the electoral playing field, the bill actually does little more than shrink the space for citizens ‚Äď particularly those engaged in civil society groups ‚Äď to express their collective will. In doing so, it threatens to tarnish the United Kingdom’s democracy.”
¬†The Communication Workers Union has raised this matter via an¬†emergency motion at TUC conference, working with other unions by drafting amendments to put into the bill, but the majority that the government enjoys within parliament means none of our fears and concerns have been addressed.
¬†The true shame of this bill is that it fails to tackle the scandal of “cash-for-questions”, which has tainted several MPs in recent years and presumably was the initial impetus. The lobbying industry is free to continue secretly cajoling politicians while charities and trade unions will be silenced. This is an attack on the rights of individuals to speak out and, most worryingly, it increasingly seems that was the point from the outset.
If the government lets this pernicious bill be passed into law, it will be to the detriment of millions of hardworking people in the UK.
This blog first appeared on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free on 29th January