Government red tape committee red cards anti-union section of Lobbying Bill
The government’s controversial Lobbying Bill has received a new setback as a business dominated red tape advisory committee has told the government to withdraw and redo its assessment of the impact of part three of the Bill that regulates union membership systems.
Part one of the Bill, which sets up a register of consultant lobbyists, and part two, which restricts what so-called third party campaigners can do during election campaigns, have already been widely criticised, with three influential parliamentary committees calling for a pause for further consultation.
As Baroness Hayter put it in the House of Lords:
Part 1 fails to deal with the lobbying problem, Part 2 deals with a non-existent problem and Part 3 deals with a made-up problem.
Critics, including the TUC, say that part one brings no extra transparency to lobbying as it only catches people working for consultant lobbying companies, rather than in-house lobbyists. Part two has come under wide attack from a very broad coalition of charities, pressure groups, NGOs, faith groups and unions as an attack on free speech and the right of groups other than political parties to have a say in our democratic life.
The Regulatory Policy Committee was set up by government to advise on the impact of regulations. It has a majority of members with a business background yet has given the Bill’s regulatory impact assessment of part three of the Bill a rare red rating. This means they think that it is unfit for purpose and that the government should start again. (full pdf)
When ministers publish Bills they intend to get through parliament they are meant to produce a regulatory impact statement (ria) that sets out the costs and benefits of a measure. This should be published when the Bill is first released. But in a further demonstration of the rushed back-of-an-envelope nature of this Bill, the ria was only published as the Bill was first debated in the Commons.
In their decision they say:
The impact assessment lacks a sound evidence base and is insufficiently robust to justify RPC validation of the estimated costs to civil society organisations (trade unions). The IA needs to provide a more detailed assessment of all likely costs to trade unions, including all familiarisation costs and recurring costs to small unions. The assessment should be supported by further evidence that was gathered from consultation with stakeholders, in particular quality assurers.
What does part three do?
The Bill’s provisions include:
- Creation of a new role of an Assurer from among ‘qualified independent persons’ as defined by the Secretary of State.
- A requirement for unions with more than 10,000 members to submit to the CO an annual ‘Membership Audit Certificate’ prepared by an Assurer, in addition to the current duty to submit an annual return.
- The Assurer will have the right to access union membership records at all ‘reasonable’ times and powers to require officers, including branch officers, to provide information.
- The CO – or his/her inspectors – will have the power to require the production of relevant documents and to make copies of membership records and private correspondence. Enforcement powers will have the status of a court order.
The proposed legislation will place onerous and unjustified additional administrative burdens on unions, which often duplicate existing regulations. The legislation also appears to violate fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of association which are safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights.
The government is singling out trade unions for unfair regulation. No other membership organisations, voluntary sector groups or businesses in the UK are subject to equivalent rules. In any case union membership is already regulated by the Trade Union Labour Relations Consolidation Act. Section 24(1) puts a duty on unions to maintain a register of members’ names and addresses so far as is reasonably practicable, accurate and up-to-date.
We are not aware of any calls having been made to the government to extend this provision. BIS, the Certification Officer (CO) and ACAS have all confirmed under Freedom of Information that they have received no representations for such a measure.
According to their website, the Certification Officer has received no complaints from trade union members relating to registers of members since 2004. Between 2000 and 2004, a total of 6 complaints were received, 5 of which were dismissed and in the sixth case the Certification Officer decided not to issue the declaration sought. If union members were concerned about the way in which unions manage membership lists, the number of complaints would be far higher and if there were serious administrative problems, the Certification Officer would have issued declarations to this effect.