Unions main target of bill

by Daphne Liddle

THE NOTORIOUS gagging Bill last Tuesday passed unchanged through the House of Lords as an amendment that would have removed its worst aspects was defeated.

It couldn’t have been closer. On the final vote, 245 Lords voted in favour and 245 against. Unfortunately the rules mean that in the case of a tie, the Government gets its way.

On a previous vote the Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill the House of Lords did vote for vital changes.

The House of Commons undid those changes and sent it back to the Lords and on Tuesday they passed it. That’s it — it’s going to become law, probably in April.

The Bill has been vigorously opposed by charities and various campaigning and pressure groups from Friends of the Earth to the Salvation Army. But its main target is the trade unions.

Ostensibly the Bill was drawn up to deal with the “cash for questions” scandal — rich individuals and giant capitalist enterprises paying MPs and political parties for their support for legislation that favours big business at the expense of the general population.

But the Bill has been drafted so that the filthy rich will in no way be inhibited from their corrupt lobbying while voters will be gagged from lobbying for various campaigns against any aspect of Government policy by a cap on what the campaigns are allowed to spend.

Campaigning groups will have to be registered with the Electoral Commission if they spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Scotland — and this includes staffing costs.

This will devastate bodies like Shelter, Oxfam, the British Legion, the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Marx Memorial Library and hundreds more. In smaller charities the extra costs of the bureaucracy and confusion could wipe them out completely.

There will be total spending cap in the run-up to elections of £450,000. This will include what is spent by the main political parties but also spending by any other organisations — like unions or charities or pressure groups that could be deemed to have influenced debate in the pre-election period, even though they do not necessarily support one party against another.

And the unions will be forced to handover their membership lists to Government officials.

Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, said in the Guardian: “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 records 100 per cent accurate. People are constantly joining, retiring or changing jobs. It is a recipe for failure.

“But that will mean a hefty fine and potentially a gag on the union, preventing it from communicating with its members.”

This is a gift for employers involved in industrial disputes.

Billy Hayes added: “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 articles eight and 11 of the European convention of human rights.”

At the back of this Bill is the Government’s fear of the growing strength of campaigning organisations and movements like those against the austerity cuts and the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign — that benefitted from the support of unions. It will be a bureaucratic nightmare for organisations trying to comply with it and for Government agencies trying to impose it

And electronic campaigning will add another dimension. If an individual, perhaps using a pseudonym, voices an attack on the Government and this gets circulated on Twitter and Facebook by thousands of people who agree with it, how is the Electoral Commission to work out how much has been spent or who has spent it?

This law is going to be very difficult for the Government to implement and very vulnerable to creative campaigners to sabotage it.

There is no cause for unions or campaigning groups to despair. We must make it unworkable as the poll tax was made unworkable by hundreds of thousands of people refusing to co-operate with it, or at least dragging their heels.

And we must feel encouraged that the Government is so scared of our unions and our campaigns because we are at last becoming more effective.