TU Bill an onslaught on civil liberties



The Human Rights dimension of the campaign against the Trade Union Bill received a fillip this week from the International Labour Organisation (ILO).  In response to a TUC submission, they:

  • Expressed serious concerns the 40 per cent threshold breaches ILO standards
  • Called on the government to exclude transport and education services from the 40% thresh-hold requirements in the Bill. 
  • Called on the government to consider modernising methods of balloting.
  • Criticised the proposed removal of the ban on agency workers to replace strikers.
  • Called the government to account for its proposals on check-off, facilities, political funds and the increased powers for the CO.

This is not from some distant, academic cabal but the ILO’s Committee of Experts – a group whose opinions are referred to frequently by a wide range of judicial bodies including the European Court of Human Rights.

Thus we see one of the reasons for the rough waters now being encountered by the Trade Union Bill. Its essential and increasingly obvious unfairness goes beyond the  usual  see-saw of partisan politics and engages legislation designed to protect fundamental values – such as the Human Rights Act, the  European Convention on Human Rights that it  is based on, and International Labour Organisation  conventions.  The UK government is a signatory to these formal inter-governmental treaties (along with 46 other European nations in the case of the ECHR).

As the briefest of overviews for the uninitiated, it is Article 11 of the HRA that explicitly talks about  the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions, and that no unreasonable restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights.

Liberty describes the bill as “a major attack on civil liberties”. Director Shami Chakrabati ‘s speech   to  the TUC emphasised how it affects not just the labour movement but everyone.

The Labour Campaign for Human Rights’ briefing paper provides an in-house summary of the prevailing themes: Article 11 of the Human Rights Act, the tension between the Bill and ILO standards, the chilling effect on democracy by restricting participation and protest, and the risks to privacy inherently contained in the requirements for picket line supervisors and membership database scrutiny. As the whole blacklisting experience illustrates, fears in this area are well founded.

And it is not just the explicit tensions with the Human Rights Act that are a cause for concern. There is a  worrying overlap between the Investigatory Powers Bill and trade unionism. And the effect of the Lobbying and Trade Union Administration Act should not be discounted. The hurdles now being placed before trade unions require the skills of a pole-vaulter to  overcome them.

Reassuringly pressure is increasing as the Bill progresses through the Lords, developing the disquiet  voiced earlier in the parliamentary process: Some Conservatives have responded specifically on the civil liberties issues, and all parties bar the Conservatives and UKIP are in opposition. So too are many groups like Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International.

As  the government continues to be unable to explain key provisions – such as  a refusal to allow unions to ballot electronically – the notion that the bill is “not entirely honourable in its intent” is taking  hold.

This may seem hackneyed and old fashioned, but values matter. And especially in the House of Lords, the language of principle has powerful currency. The leaked letter from Nick Boles, BIS minister, to Messrs Grayling and Letwin saying that some parts of the Bill are not fit-for-purpose is a  reflection of this.

But even though activity on issues  such as  methods  of voting,  advance notification of campaign  plans, even the validity  of strike ballots (reported to be relaxed from 4 months to 6) all reek of a “stop digging” approach, we cannot forget that we are still very much in a hole.

The secondary legalisation that is required and that the Joint [Parliamentary] Committee on Human Rights will examine, gives meaning to many of the overarching principles and covers things like ballot thresh-holds and facility time. This further opportunity is welcome – but we cannot forget that the primary legislation will have already been adopted.

So the campaign against the bill, both in Parliament and outside must continue on all fronts. But one big big threat, lurking poisonously in the undergrowth, is the long-held desire of the PM  to  replace HRA wish a so-called British Bill of Rights. This is hugely controversial in itself, but should  Mr Cameron be successful, it would undermines our arguments in many areas. Removal of the Act would not, of course, eliminate the human rights concerns – but it makes them a heckuva a lot harder to address.

Another reason to strengthen our resolve.

Simon Sapper is Assistant Secretary of CWU. This article is part of a series to mark heartunions, the TUC week of action against the Trade Union Bill.

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