The Tories’ Trade Union Bill is illegal, illiterate and illiberal.
Illegal because it breaches the UK’s international legal obligations.
Illiterate because it is incoherent, inconsistent, bureaucratic and nonsensical.
And illiberal because it requires government officials to snoop into union affairs, seize documents and impose fines – all at the union’s own expense.
As trailed in the Tory Manifesto and the Queen’s Speech, unions will face additional restrictions before members can take action which is legally protected. The ballot will require not just a majority of those voting, but a majority of those entitled to vote, a threshold which denies the democratic will of those choosing to take part in the ballot and effectively treats a failure to vote as a “No” vote.
Additional restrictions are imposed in “important public services”, a wider definition than the “essential public services” in existing law. This applies not just to those directly providing the service, but also those involved in ancillary activities, like cleaners in a hospital. In these “important public services”, not only must there be a majority voting “Yes” and a 50% turnout, but 40% of those entitled to vote must have voted in favour.
It’s a cruel injustice that the Tories regard these activities as “important public services” for the purposes of curtailing trade union activities, yet they don’t think those services should be provided by the public sector and have privatised many of them.
There will be even more new requirements to satisfy before a ballot is legal.
The ballot paper must now include “a reasonably detailed indication of the matters in issue in the trade dispute”, “the types of industrial action” contemplated and when the action is likely to take place. This is all designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for a union to comply with the law, to deter members from voting in favour of action and to give employers the maximum opportunity for legal challenge.
If the union manages to satisfy all of this, and members vote in favour of action, the union will now be required to give two weeks’ notice before action can start (rather than one week as previously) and will have to re-ballot if the action continues for more than four months.
Pickets are to be turned into criminals, by requiring the union appoint a picket supervisor who must report to the police. The legislation goes into ridiculous detail even requiring the picket supervisor to “wear a badge, armband or other item” to identify them. This smacks of something from the 1930s.
Under the Tory Bill, unions will only be able to receive political fund contributions from those members who have opted in, in writing, to the political fund. Every union will have only three months from when the new Act becomes law to sign up members to the political fund. This is an impossible task, designed to prevent unions from spending money on campaigning as well as a nakedly political attack on opposition to the Tory government and the funding of the Labour Party.
It is a blatant manoeuvre to shut down democracy and debate and an outright assault on freedom of expression and protest.
It’s reinforced by requiring unions to publish details of all their political expenditure, giving details of every amount over £2000, who it was paid to and the nature of it.
The Bill imposes absurdly bureaucratic requirements on public authorities to publish minutely detailed data on union officials employed by them who are carrying out union activities or duties.
The intention is clearly to deter public employers from allowing facility time, even where it is agreed, with the further aim of preventing union officials from having the time and resources to represent their members. And, if that isn’t enough, the government also gives itself the power to impose regulations which would restrict the amount of facility time employers can actually give.
To cap it all, the Bill seeks to transform the role of the Certification Officer from a neutral adjudicator on union law and rules into a state snooper. The Certification Officer will be required to investigate all sorts of internal union issues, whether or not any member has complained, demand documents and issue orders against the union which can be enforced, not only by the Certification Officer, but by any union member. And unions must pay for the privilege of this by paying a levy to fund the Certification Officer.
Trade unions are voluntary, democratic organisations, essential in a free society. No other organisations face such state intrusion and restriction on their activities.
This Bill is the work of a vindictive Tory Party using the levers of government for its own political ends, seeking to outlaw legitimate protest and opposition, stifle free speech and choke off the finances and resources of political opponents.
It must be opposed by everyone who values freedom and the rule of law.
Jo Stevens is the Labour Member of Parliament for Cardiff Central