Thompsons Solicitors condemns government's 'astonishing' policy on privacy: protect it for bankers but not for seven million trade union members.
In challenging the European Union over bankers' bonuses, the government is displaying 'astonishing' double standards over the privacy of personal data, according to a leading employment rights law firm.
Thompsons Solicitors says the government's argument that the operation of a bonus cap fails to protect personal data stands in stark contrast to the powers it wants to give itself in relation to the membership details of more than seven million British trade union members.
Part 3 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill gives the state alarming powers to require unions to hand over membership records and private correspondence – over-riding the right to privacy in the European Convention on Human Rights.
"Now we know the government's stance on personal data: protect it for the bankers but not for seven million trade union members" said Tom Jones, head of policy at Thompsons Solicitors.
"The government has leapt to the defence of bankers' privacy while at the very same time saying it's OK to remove the same protection from more than seven million trade unionists.
"A bill is being rushed through Parliament, after a cursory consultation over the summer, which rides roughshod over trade union concerns about being forced to hand-over the names and addresses of members and unlimited private correspondence.
"On the other hand, revealing their true colours, the government is rushing to protect the privacy of a handful of bankers."
For years now, unions have had to submit annual membership returns to the government's Certification Officer (CO). It's been open and transparent, giving union members the right to check the records and complain to the CO if something is wrong – and no one has since 2004.
Under this Bill, the government wants to intrude 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 Assurers 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'.
If the bill goes through, literally hundreds of state personnel and contractors will have the power to access the personal information of more than seven million union members.
The TUC has said: "It is not the business of the State to know who is or who is not a trade union member, and where they live".
But the government is invoking article 8(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to over-ride data protection laws.
That article says the right to privacy can be limited only by 'the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.'
"By implication, the government is saying trade unions are a threat to all these things – and therefore it is okay to do what they propose," said Tom Jones.
"The Bill has come from business secretary Vince Cable's department, yet again displaying a shocking lack of liberalism from a Liberal Democrat minister – and a complete disregard for internationally recognised privacy and trade union rights.
"This is a spiteful piece of anti-union red tape from a government that's meant to be opposed to red tape. Its intrusion on privacy is chilling and has serious implications for freedom of association.
"People join trade unions for all sorts of reasons, but it's a private matter. No other membership organisation is going to be required to hand-over personal information."