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Much attention has been focused on the Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill in recent weeks – notably, its failure to tackle the real problem of 'big money' corporate lobbying, together with its attack on the democratic rights and free speech of non-party NGOs, charities, faith and belief groups and other civic organisations in the run-up to an election.
However, though Ekklesia and others have always included this concern in their own briefing and representations on the subject, it has been less noticed and commented upon that Part Three of the Lobbying Bill is as bad as the first two parts. It not only ties up union membership systems in additional red tape but risks the confidentiality of the membership lists involved.
The point here is that law already makes unions keep accurate membership lists and use independent scrutineers to run elections and ballots. If unions get something wrong members can complain to the government appointed Certification Officer (although no-one has since 2004).
But the new law goes much further. It will let employers raise complaints about 'political activity' in such a way as to trigger membership lists being made open to the Certification Officer, a Membership Assurer (chosen from a government-nominated list, note) and any other investigators appointed after a complaint has been made.
This will cause many people understandable nervousness and anxiety on the issue of privacy. While most are probably happy to be open about union membership, a large number will be deeply concerned about bad or vindictive employers finding out what they had previously had a right to keep a secret – that they are a member of a union – and then finding some pretext to dismiss, harass or disadvantage them.
This is not purely theoretical possibility. It has happened and does happen. The Lobbying Bill could institutionalise it. At a time when the full scope of the blacklisting scandal has still not yet come to light, giving employers and the government even more access to sensitive personal data is a dangerous development.
Those who share this concern can help by signing the purposefully anonymous petition created by the 'Going to Work' initiative of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), supported by a range of unions and NGOs.
To dramatise the threat to confidentiality, they want to send a message to government that thousands of people are concerned they will no longer have the right to keep secret whether or not they are a union member.
They will list all entries in the petition as "Anonymous", mentioning only your job and home town, to make the point that while you may have given them your consent to use your data, you do not think the government and its chosen scrutineers should automatically have this too.
The government’s Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill – described in the Financial Times as “one of the worst pieces of legislation put before the Houses of Parliament for many moons” – goes to Report stage on 13 and 15 January 2014. Ekklesia is an active member of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, chaired by former Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries, which is working to get the Bill substantially revised. Many of us would like to see it scrapped altogether in its present form.
Sign the petition against a union data grab through the Lobbying Bill here: http://action.goingtowork.org.uk/page/s/lobbying-bill-my-union-membershi...
* More on the Lobbying Bill from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill
* Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement: http://civilsocietycommission.info
* Please also support this urgent petition to back Lord Harries / CCSDE amendments to Lobbyng Bill on 15 January: http://civilsocietycommission.info/petition/
© Simon Barrow is co-director of the think-tank Ekklesia, and an active member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and other union networks in Scotland.Tweet