Government drops law letting police spy on unions
There was a major climbdown from the government in last night’s parliamentary debate on the Investigatory Powers Bill, in response to an opposition amendment. The minister conceded changes that will protect unions from police warrants to seize phone records or emails.
The Bill, which more people now know as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’, has been an extremely controversial one, and unions have raised concerns about many of its measures. But the idea that union activity on an issue could have been enough of a reason to issue a warrant for private data from union records, would send a chill down any union member’s spine.
It’s very welcome that these proposals have sensibly been dropped, even if it’s unfortunate that it needed a sustained campaign by unions and opposition MPs.
That kind of state-sponsored surveillance of trade unions has no role in a modern democracy like ours. With the blacklisting scandal still not fully uncovered, unions know first-hand how human rights can be abused and lives can be wrecked when the authorities start amassing details on unions and their members.
There is clear evidence that state monitoring was passed to employers, breaching privacy and basic human rights. For years, construction workers who spoke up over safety concerns or working conditions found themselves barred from work with many major companies, who used a blacklist to vet people and deny them work. Their good names were trashed and livelihoods destroyed. Millions have now been paid in compensation to many of these brave activists, but with cases still pending there’s a lot more to uncover before we know how far this went.
In making his speech it was good to see the minister, Conservative MP John Hayes, acknowledge that the proposal had been “neither proportional nor lawful and was “a profound concern to me too”.
He had more to say on the importance of unions:
“Trade unions make a vital contribution to free society. Working people in this country would be considerably worse off if it weren’t for the activities of trade unions through the ages. My father was a shop steward, my grandfather was chairman of his union branch and I’m proud to be a union member myself.”
We welcome that John Hayes and his colleagues have seen the light over this part of the Bill, but credit is due to the Labour front bench team for sticking with it, and working with unions to get it defeated.