Britain is sending out conflicting messages about its commitment to privacy and freedom of association, warns Thompsons Solicitors, after the government in Westminster and the Welsh Assembly took sharply contrasting positions on trade union rights.

As the Welsh Government announced measures yesterday (11 September) to tackle blacklisting of trade unionists, Conservatives and Lib Dems in the House of Commons voted through measures that threaten the right to privacy of more than seven million union members.

More than seven million people could be affected

“The Welsh Government’s stance on blacklisting - for which read: freedom to be a member of a union and not suffer prejudice for that - is in stark contrast to the Westminster government’s plans to give itself and unspecified numbers of unelected officials unprecedented powers to require trade unions to hand over members’ personal details,” said Richard Arthur of Thompsons Solicitors.

“Part 3 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill currently being rushed through Westminster would mean government officials and others can demand trade unions hand over individual membership records and personal correspondence. More than seven million people could be affected.

A chilling intrusion on privacy with serious implications for freedom of association

“It’s a spiteful piece of anti-union red tape from a government that’s meant to be opposed to red tape. It’s a chilling intrusion on privacy with serious implications for freedom of association which is a fundamental right in the UK and throughout the democratic world.

“People join trade unions for all sorts of reasons but mostly for protection – trade unionised workplaces are recognised as safer workplaces for example – but it should be up to them and a private matter. As the TUC have put it, it is not the business of the State to know who is or is not a trade union member, and where they live.”

The Welsh Government is tackling blacklisting by issuing guidance that, in bids for public sector contracts, companies that have denied employment opportunities because of trade union membership or activity should be excluded. The practice is known to have been used by construction companies operating in Wales and to have affected more than 100 Welsh construction workers.

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons yesterday, Tory and Lib Dem MPs defeated a number of Labour amendments to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill that would have limited or qualified government intrusion powers.

"It is good to see action being taken in Wales against companies who think they can bully trade union members by blacklisting them,” said Richard Arthur.

“The Welsh government is saying those who bid for billions of pounds of public money should behave fairly towards their workers and not punish those who choose to join a trade union.

“At the same time the UK government is travelling in the opposite direction by introducing a Bill that overrides data protection rules and means trade unions could have to hand over information on millions of members. Any data transfer carries a huge risk that information could go astray or fall into the wrong hands.

“The track record of public bodies in safeguarding data is not impressive. Patient files, benefit records and other sensitive personal information have been lost in the post, left on trains and emailed to the wrong people. It happens, and the more people handling the data, the more vulnerable it is to human error. Trade unionists have good grounds for fearing information could end up being misused for blacklisting.

“This legislation has been introduced with only a four week consultation over the summer and even then it was presented as a ‘done deal’ with comment only allowed on how it was to be organised. By the government’s own admission it overrides articles 8.1 and 11.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“At a time when we know blacklisting is a reality we should be looking at an enforcement authority and laws that makes blacklisting a criminal offence across the UK but instead we have this unprecedented and radical intrusion into people’s lives with no evidence as to why it’s necessary.”

Since 1992, under the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, unions have had to submit annual membership returns to the Government’s Certification Officer (CO) and union members have had the right to check the records and complain to the CO if something is wrong. No union member has complained since 2004, and the courts, when ruling on challenges from employers, have found union membership data to be as ‘accurate as is reasonably practicable’.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill intrudes much further by:

  • Requiring unions with more than 10,000 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 the Assurer 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’.

Thompsons Solicitors is working with trade unions, MPs and civil liberties groups to defend the right to privacy of union members and freedom of association, in line with international law.

Read the Thompsons response to the Bill consultation here.