With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 108, page 39, line 16, at end insert—
‘(3A) The conditions set out in an order under subsection (3)(a) shall include the qualifications, status and experience an assurer requires in order to qualify under that subsection.’.
Amendment 110, page 39, leave out lines 29 to 35 and insert—
Amendment 109, page 39, line 46, at end insert—
‘(e) The person has breached the confidentiality of the Trade Union, or
(f) The person is in breach of his statutory duty or the terms of his appointment, by reason of incapacity or for any other reason which in the reasonable opinion of the union justifies his removal, or
(g) There are any other reasonable circumstances where the continuation of the assurer would be deemed inappropriate.’.
Amendment 111, page 40, line 12, leave out from ‘opinion,’ to ‘for’ in line 14 and insert—
‘the trade union secured, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the entries in the register were accurate and up-to-date.’.
Amendment 112, page 40, line 19, at end insert—
‘(c) Whether, in the assurer’s opinion, the trade union has taken all reasonable steps to ensure their membership register is up to date taking into account—
(i) that the union should not be held responsible for inaccuracies in cases where, in the assurer’s opinion, an employer is not sharing timely and accurate details, and
(ii) any other aspects that, in the assurer’s opinion, have been out of the control of the trade union in the maintenance of the membership register.’.
Amendment 166, page 40, line 29, at end insert—
‘(4A) The Secretary of State will determine the definition of “satisfactory” and “not satisfactory” in this section and produce guidance for assurers.’.
Amendment 116, page 41, line 1, leave out from ‘union’s’ to ‘such’ in line 2 and insert ‘data controller’.
Amendment 115, page 41, line 4, at end insert—
‘(c) has the right to make a reasonable request to any employer for information that the assurer considers necessary for the performance of the assurer’s functions.’.
Amendment 117, page 41, line 4, at end insert—
‘() where this does not conflict with the union’s responsibilities as set down by the Information Commissioner.’.
Amendment 119, page 41, line 25, at beginning insert—
‘(za) to comply with duties owed by him under the Data Protection Act 1998, and’.
Amendment 118, page 41, line 28, leave out ‘all reasonable steps’ and insert ‘all steps necessary’.
Amendment 120, page 41, leave out lines 34 to 39.
Clause stand part.
I know you thoroughly enjoyed the debate on the previous group of amendments, Mr Sheridan, so it is great to see you in the Chair in this debate. I thank the Minister for her apology on the impact assessment. We had a committee meeting during the Division and have decided to accept her apology, even if the impact assessment arrived in the Vote Office at 1.53 pm—we understand that that is the official time recorded.
Amendments 107, 116, 117, 119 and 120 address the concerns of trade unions, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, lawyers, trade unionists and organisations such as Liberty, which believe that clause 37 could result in the improper use of sensitive material and accidental disclosure. It also raises questions, as my hon. Friend Ian Lavery mentioned in his contribution on the previous group of amendments, about international law, specifically articles 8 and 11 of the European convention on human rights.
Amendments 107 and 119 place a legal duty and obligation to provide total confidentiality and an express statutory duty of that confidentiality for the assurer, in addition to the oblique references already in proposed section 24ZF. The assurer should therefore have a statutory duty of confidentiality to the union and, more importantly, the union’s membership. The amendments also ensure that the assurer agrees not to engage in conduct likely to lead to a breach of a union’s obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998.
It should be noted that union membership is in the significant category of sensitive personal data. It is not known how far the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has consulted the Information Commissioner’s office on the Bill. There is a significant risk that the union might be held accountable for breaches by the assurer. Will the Minister address what discussions she has had with the Information Commissioner’s office on the new assurer position, and what its thoughts were on the ability of trade unions to both comply with the Data Protection Act 1998 and be responsible as the data holder to an assurer who, by nature of the definition of the Bill, is independent from that data controller in terms of the trade union? The 1998 Act is clear and it may be worth considering this issue in detail, Mr Sheridan. When one overlays the Data Protection Act with the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, we can see how unnecessary the proposed changes are.
That is exactly the purpose of all our amendments to clause 37: to ensure that any independent person, as described in the Bill—whether the assurer, the certification officer’s staff, or an investigator that might be appointed by the certification officer—is covered by existing data protection law and the European convention on human rights. That was a timely intervention, as it is important to run through the schedules to the Data Protection Act and relate them directly to our amendments, and the overlaying of clause 37 and other clauses in part 3.
Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act lists the data protection principles in the following terms. I realise this is slightly technical, but it is worth running through them to ensure that we have got it absolutely right.
“Personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully and, in particular, shall not be processed unless—
(a) at least one of the conditions in Schedule 2 is met…”—
I will come back to that a little later, and, crucially, that—
“(b) in the case of sensitive personal data, at least one of the conditions in Schedule 3 is also met.”
It is a condition of schedule 2 that, because trade union membership is classed as sensitive personal data it has to have a category in schedule 3 too. Sensitive data includes trade union membership, so we have to take that category into account overriding schedule 2.
Interestingly, section 4 of schedule 1 to the Act states clearly that
“Personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date.”
This is a strong requirement of the Act and in this context trade unions must abide by that condition as a data controller. There is already a strong obligation on trade unions under the current legislation, the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992—I wish there was a shorter way of saying that—to keep membership lists up to date. We have discussed that at length this afternoon in terms of legislation already in place to deal with many of the issues that the Minister deems to be a problem that have to be dealt with in the Bill.
Appropriate technical and organisational measures should be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data, and against accidental loss, destruction of, or damage to, personal data. That accidental loss could be a significant hurdle when being processed by independent assurers or independent investigators appointed by the certification officer, is a key concern for many stakeholders. The responsibility for the data under the Data Protection Act lies with the data controller at the trade union. They will be responsible for the actions of independent bodies looking at that trade union’s membership list.
That is a genuine concern, of which the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee stated in its recommendations:
“The Government must address these concerns during the course of proceedings on the Bill.”
I do not think they have, which is the reason for some of our amendments in this grouping. As we have said, trade union membership falls under “sensitive personal data”, which means personal data consisting of information about many aspects of a person, including—these are the important aspects for this Bill—their political opinions and whether they are a member of a trade union, within the meaning of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The presumption is that because information about such matters could be used in a discriminatory fashion and is likely to be of a private nature, it needs to be treated with greater care than other personal data. The nature of those data is also a factor in deciding what security is appropriate in securing them. That is the purpose of amendments 116 and 117.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly good point. One of the key aspects of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 is to ensure that trade unions’ membership lists are up to date. The current categories are set out in sections 24(1) and (2) of the 1992 Act—my hon. Friend Ian Lavery spoke about them a few hours ago—which contain provisions to ensure that anyone unhappy with their personal data being held by the trade union can apply to the certification officer for a ruling on whether those data should be held. There are therefore already strict rules about the data, which is right, given, say, blacklisting and whether data on trade union membership become an issue.
The purpose of amendments 116 and 117 is to restrict data collection in a trade union to collection from the data controller only. The data controller can subsequently obtain the required information from individual branches or sections, as mentioned in the Bill, but the responsibility for that must come from the data controller of the union, who has the legal obligations both under the Data Protection Act and their responsibilities to the Information Commissioner. Inquiries to other centres makes the job of the data controller near impossible. Trade unions manage their membership data carefully; that should be explicitly maintained in the Bill.
Such considerations have given rise to a fear that part 3, and clause 37 in particular, could result in a new scandal of people being blacklisted for being members of a trade union. That is the reasoning behind amendment 120, which would restrict disclosure of a member’s data to where the member had consented—that is, given explicit consent under the Data Protection Act—and the investigation of criminal proceedings. The list of other such circumstances set out in clause 37 is unhelpful in dealing with people’s data protection concerns and the blacklisting issues that might arise. Proposed new section 24ZG(3) of the 1992 Act, as set out in clause 37, is too widely drafted and creates other legal responsibilities that the data controller might not be able to meet.
In the last couple of years we have seen the increasing exposure of blacklisting activities in some sectors, in which individuals have concerns about joining a trade union for fear of victimisation at work and loss of employment. Increasing powers for state officials to access union membership records and addresses can only increase the deterrent against such activities. May I respectfully suggest to the Minister that, rather than increasing the regulation of trade unions through this Bill—which might increase the risk of blacklisting—the Government should take active steps to abide by the decision taken by this House back in February, after the Opposition day debate on blacklisting, to instigate an inquiry, release the information held by the Information Commissioner’s Office about the victims of blacklisting and look at a compensation package for those on the blacklists?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. Is not the nub of the issue—which I think he is coming to—that although the purpose of clause 37 is to increase transparency and confidence among the general public, it is likely to have the opposite effect for trade union members? If they felt that their personal data were at risk of falling into the wrong hands, that would have the opposite impact on union membership.
It absolutely would. Given the evidence of blacklisting that has emerged over the past few years, particularly in relation to the inquiry by the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume either that someone might not wish to join a trade union, or that an existing member might wish to leave, on the ground that their membership could affect their employment prospects. That matter has not been dealt with in the Bill, as a result of the slapdash way in which it has been put together and placed before the House.
The Data Protection Act imposes strict conditions for processing sensitive personal data. Anyone processing such data must satisfy one of more of the conditions for processing that apply specifically to such sensitive data, as well as one of the general conditions that apply in every case relating to non-sensitive data. It is arguable that the Bill does not satisfy those conditions, which merely emphasises how incompatible it is with the Data Protection Act.
The conditions in schedule 3 of the Act for processing sensitive personal data are as follows. First, it is necessary for the data subject to have
“given his explicit consent to the processing of the personal data.”
The members would therefore have to consent explicitly, meaning that the assurer would have to contact all the members on the membership list, should they require the data. That would surely be impractical and, as my hon. Friend Mr Doran said earlier, a requirement that the assurer contact everyone to obtain their explicit consent would impose an onerous burden of cost and bureaucracy on the trade unions.
The second condition in the Act states that the processing should be
“necessary for the purposes of exercising or performing any right or obligation which is conferred or imposed by law on the data controller in connection with employment.”
Unless I am mistaken, however, the proposal in the Bill has nothing to do with employment law. The third condition states that the processing must be necessary
“(a) in order to protect the vital interests of the data subject or another person, in a case where—
(i) consent cannot be given by or on behalf of the data subject, or
(ii) the data controller cannot reasonably be expected to obtain the consent of the data subject”.
That should not apply in the case of a trade union member. The processing must also be necessary
“in order to protect the vital interests of another person, in a case where consent by or on behalf of the data subject has been unreasonably withheld.”
I would imagine that, in relation to trade union membership, those conditions could be satisfied fairly easily. It is not clear that any of the proposed process is designed to protect the individual. It could therefore be argued that the Government have failed to tell us what problem they are trying to resolve, and what process they are trying to protect.
The fourth condition states that the processing must be carried out by a not-for-profit organisation and should not involve disclosing personal data to a third party unless the individual consents. Extra limitations apply to this condition, in that individual consents are required for disclosure to a third party. Will the Minister tell us whether the assurer or the certification officer are third parties? Would any investigator appointed by the certification officer be deemed to be a third party, given that they are deemed in the legislation to be independent? That would not be compatible with the responsibility of the data controller in the trade union.
In addition to those conditions in the Data Protection Act, regulations set out several other conditions for processing sensitive personal data. Their effect is to permit such processing for a range of other purposes—typically, those cases that are substantially in the public interest and that must necessarily be carried out without the explicit consent of the individual. The Government would have to put up a strong argument to convince us that checking a trade union’s membership list was substantially in the public interest, and I cannot see how the provisions in part 3 of the Bill can be deemed to be fulfil those conditions. It is difficult to construct a public interest test in relation to the annual membership list of a trade union. The nature of the consent required to satisfy the condition for processing sensitive data must be explicit. The Act particularly mentions the word “explicit”, yet it is not mentioned in the proposed new clause in the Bill.
We have tabled amendment 108 to ensure that the assurer is a person of suitable calibre. The Secretary of State should explicitly set out regulations to ensure that the assurer can demonstrate a strong knowledge of and previous compliance with the Data Protection Act and other regulations relating to data protection. Our amendment 109 provides for the removal of an assurer if they are in breach of any of the confidentiality conditions, or if the trade union has any reason to believe that it would be inappropriate for them to remain in post. Amendment 118 would raise the bar on confidentiality, requiring the assurer to take “all steps necessary”, instead of the present “all reasonable steps”, to secure obligations under the Data Protection Act and other legislation.
The inherent reason for legislation and regulation of trade unions seems to be that some of those unions donate money to the Labour party, but can my hon. Friend find any provisions within this Bill that impose similar regulations on organisations such as the United and Cecil Club or the Royal Automobile Club, which donate money to the Conservative party? Given that the RAC is a membership organisation, would it be covered by this legislation?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting observation. No, the RAC would not be covered by part 3, which deals exclusively with trade union membership. In our lengthy debate on the preceding group of amendments, we found that the Conservative party will not even tell us how many members it has, despite the fact that it could well be argued that it has a major vested interest in public opinion and how the laws of this country are determined. Should not the Conservative party therefore be obliged to tell us how many members it has and whether or not its membership lists are accurate? That seems to be falling on deaf ears with the Government. I pressed Members from across the Committee to provide a figure on Conservative party membership, but it has still to come forward.
Thank you, Mr Sheridan. I shall certainly try not to wander off topic.
It is worth pondering the question of the compatibility of these provisions with the European convention on human rights. A vast number of organisations, including the well-respected organisation Liberty, has raised that issue. Liberty believes that part 3 should be removed in its entirety, and I could not agree more. It believes the proposals breach article 11 on freedom of assembly and association, which takes us back to the intervention of my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne who was worried about the impact of this part of the Bill on trade union members, and article 8. For many individuals, membership of a trade union is a deeply private choice.
That is essentially what Liberty is pointing out in its contribution, which I think is a valid and strong one. We heard from my hon. Friend John McDonnell when we debated clause 36 that this is probably what the Government want to do—they want to wrap trade unions up in their own membership lists and taking legal action about them, as well as having to deal with the assurer and certification officer, rather than getting on with the job that their members pay their membership fees for, which is to represent them in the workplace. Both those issues are valid and might be a consequence of this part of the Bill.
I was saying that for many individuals, membership of a trade union is a deeply private choice—one that they wish to keep confidential for perfectly legitimate reasons, whether they be about blacklisting or otherwise.
Part 3 and clause 37 in particular open up the possibility that these confidential matters could be made public. For example, Liberty referred to a recent case in which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs decided to suspend its dispute with Equity about providing personal information relating to its members. Wide-ranging powers for the certification officer are, according to Liberty’s lawyers, incompatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights.
On the power to request other documents, Liberty states:
“The documents of which the CO, authorised persons and inspectors can order production is very wide; it will potentially include matters such as…private correspondence between a union and its members (e.g. about a member’s affiliation to a political fund; membership of an internal section of a union combating discrimination; communications about internal grievances within an employer) and…internal union communications with its membership, such as membership campaigns and industrial action.”
These are all matters that an individual would understandably want to keep private, but the Government proposals will open these up to bodies and individuals who have no duty of confidentiality to the trade union itself, which legally holds the data.
Additionally, future employees may be put off from joining a trade union, as we have already heard this evening, in the knowledge that the union could be required to provide their membership register to a Government body for “any good reason”, which appears in the Bill. That emphasises the point about blacklisting and the strong arguments over freedom of association and trade union membership.
There are three tests for determining whether an interference with the rights in article 11 is justified. This precedent was set in The Sunday Timesv. the UK case. It is justified first where the interference corresponds to a pressing social need; secondly, according to whether it is
“proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued”; and, thirdly, according to whether the reasons given by the national authority to justify it are “relevant and sufficient”. Liberty believes that the changes proposed in part 3 do not pass those tests and that clause 37 does little or nothing to provide reassurance, and it is the driver of our amendment.
Under the Bill as it stands, the assurer can be removed, but owing to the weakness of the provisions relating to data protection, it is not clear whether he can be automatically removed if he does not abide by the Data Protection Act. Perhaps the Minister will be able to answer that question. Our amendments are intended to give trade unions the power to remove an independent assurer if they feel that he is causing a trade union data controller to be in breach of his duties.
Let me now deal with the question of whether clause 37 is compliant with article 11. The first issues that emerged from the Sunday Times v. United Kingdom case were “legitimate aim” and “pressing social need”. The Government’s discussion paper states:
“at present complaints to the Certification Officer (CO) about the register can only be made by trade union members and no-one else. In addition, members only have a right to see whether and how their own details are recorded. This means it is difficult for members to make a complaint in relation to the accuracy of the membership register as a whole.”
Liberty rightly argues that that is not a legitimate aim, as the position is already adequately covered by current legislation, and
“the independent scrutineer”
—for whom the Bill also provides—
“is required to examine the entirety of register of their own volition and report any issues to the union.”
That brings us back to the arguments relating to clause 36. Again, these provisions already exist in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The same reasoning lies behind amendment 110, which aligns clause 37 and provision for the appointment and removal of assurers—which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Steve McCabe—with the obligations conferred on scrutineers by section 49(1) of the Act. Any individual challenge to the regulator must involve investigation of the accuracy of the register as a whole, not just the member’s own incorrect entry. The current framework in section 24 of the Act allows for that.
Does not the scenario that my hon. Friend is setting out throw yet another potential problem into the mix? Would it not start to undermine the perceived neutrality of certification officers by dragging them into industrial disputes from which they have so far been excluded?
That is a legitimate point. I do not know whether my hon. Friend was present during the last debate, but I can tell him that the certification officer figures are pretty stark. There have been 10 determinations since 1987, none in the last eight years and six between 2000 and 2004, of which five were dismissed and the sixth did not even constitute a formal determination. A new, erroneous part of the Bill could easily cause a certification officer to be dragged into a position that affected his neutrality—which, incidentally, trade unions and their members respect. Unions and certification officers work closely together, and certification officers are always keen to make the point that they are not opposed to each other, but share the aim of ensuring that unions operate correctly and within the law.
Let me now deal with the proportionality issue that arose from the case relating to article 11 of the European convention on human rights. Liberty states that the current regime satisfies the requirement that scrutiny be undertaken to ensure public confidence in the status of any register, and that the current measures to undertake that scrutiny are proportionate.
The increased powers of the certification officer are also disproportionate. First, it may invoke its increased powers if it thinks there is good reason to do so. That is very broadly drawn, and what constitutes a good reason in any case? Might it be a vexatious claim from a national newspaper to the certification officer to have a look at a particular membership list? That was the driver behind our amendment 103 to the previous clause, which the Government have just rejected.
Secondly, the certification officer can view not only the register, but any other document that may be relevant to determining whether there is a breach of section 24(1) of the 1992 Act and it can require people to give explanations.
Thirdly and ultimately, under clause 37 as currently written, the certification officer does not owe a duty of confidentiality to the union. The addition of a third-party inspector would be particularly intrusive and that inspector owes a duty of confidentiality only to the certification officer, not the union.
Liberty rightly concluded:
“These measures clearly go beyond what is necessary and proportionate to achieve any legitimate aim behind the proposals, if indeed there is one at all, and as such constitute a breach of Article 11 of the Convention.”
There is, indeed, a compelling argument to be made that clause 37 breaches article 11. The justification for that claim arises from the fact that there is already legislation in place to deal with many of these issues.
Amendments 111, 112, 166 and 115 are intended to clarify the need for a trade union to take “all reasonable steps” to ensure membership lists are accurate. We discussed some of that language in our debate on the amendments to clause 36. This is completely consistent with obligations under the 1992 Act to take all reasonable steps. That language and responsibility should be reflected in clause 37. There will be an inconsistency of language if we remove the reference to taking reasonable steps in the 1992 Act and replace it with language that is more stringent on the trade unions.
The primary responsibility for the alterations to any membership list lies with the individual. That is already set out in section 24(1) of the Act. However, all too often a union member may move house, change jobs or even pass away and those details will not be passed on to the union membership officer for recording in a timely fashion. In some circumstances, it cannot be reasonable for a trade union to be held wholly responsible for every part of a membership list. People can take a complaint to the certification officer resulting in an in-depth investigation at great cost to both the public purse and the trade unions, when the 1992 Act clearly states that the responsibility for ensuring the accuracy of an individual’s data on a trade union membership list lies with the individual, not the union. If the union has taken “all reasonable steps” to make sure that list is accurate, such a matter should not fall within the remit of this Bill.
It should be the case that the assurer can make a determination that the union has, in so far as is reasonably practicable, ensured the entries in the membership register are accurate. That is what amendments 111 and 112 would achieve. They would give the assurer the power to qualify the membership audit certificate to say that information from employers or members has not come forward in a timely fashion and the union has taken all steps to ensure the information is accurate.
The issuing of any membership certificate will be based on information for just a snapshot in time of that particular moment and day. We have learned from the—late—impact assessment that about 9% or 10% of trade union membership flows in or out of a trade union at any given period. For a major trade union, that amounts to an awful lot of people to keep track of. If a union has taken “all reasonable steps” to ensure their membership list is accurate, it should be taken into account that the list will only be a snapshot of a particular moment in time. It should be possible to clearly state on the audit certificate that any inaccuracies are not the fault of the trade union and therefore the audit certificate is issued with that qualification. The clause as currently drafted would not allow for that.
Importantly, for that process to operate correctly the employers also have a duty of responsibility to the trade union membership audit certification process. Amendment 115 would give the assurer the right to access reasonable information from employers if it was determined that that information would be necessary for the performance of the assurer in determining the accuracy of a membership list. It would also allow for access to data that may satisfy the assurer that the trade union has taken all reasonable steps in compiling the membership register. Many unions have indicated that a lack of information from employers provided in an efficient manner is the main cause of the vast majority of inaccuracies in their membership lists. Giving the assurer the powers to make reasonable requests to employers for information means that there can be confidence that membership registers are indeed accurate. If anything comes out of this process and this bad part of the Bill, it might be that the assurer, as an independent person, could help the trade unions with some of those relationships with the employers, to ensure that the data coming from the employers make the lists that trade unions have far more accurate.
One wonders what thought is driving the Government to ask trade unions to do what the Bill requires. I cannot for one moment see a situation where the Government would ask for the same accuracy in electoral lists held by returning officers in particular areas at any given time. It would be almost impossible to provide. The amount of bureaucracy and administration required to keep such lists up to date would be beyond the financial capability of most local authorities.
That is a good comparison to make, because I would bet that every one of the 166 trade unions registered with the certification officer in this country has far better membership records than any electoral register held by an electoral office. That is not a criticism of the valuation joint boards or local councils; it is simply because people are transient and move in and out all the time, so it is impossible to keep a 100% accurate record. I would guess that the trade union membership lists are far more accurate than such electoral registers.
Finally, I wish to deal with the rather unusual terminology used in clause 37. The word “satisfactory” appears in the proposed new section 24ZD(3) whereas the term “not satisfactory” appears in the proposed subsection (4). The use of that incredibly strange terminology could result in a lack of consistency and direction for assurers. It only fuels the fire in terms of us thinking that that this piece of legislation is designed either to create additional casework or additional case law as some of these issues are taken through the courts, or to keep trade unions busy in the courts trying to justify what is “satisfactory” and what is “not satisfactory”.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines satisfactory as either
“satisfying demands, expectations, or requirements; adequate” or “atoning” for one’s sins. I hope that the Liberal Democrat Minister will satisfactorily atone for her sins before the next general election—[Interruption.] I would be more than satisfied if she atones for her sins by accepting our amendments on this part of the Bill or, indeed, deletes the clause altogether.
Just how badly this Bill is drafted is shown by the fact that it contains such wide definitions of a term that relates to its fundamental objective in terms of the production of a membership audit certificate. Will the Minister, or indeed the Secretary of State, be determining by guidance what “satisfactory” and what “not satisfactory” means in this context? Will the definitions of and guidance on those two terms have them as exact polar opposites? It is important that that is made clear.
I would term this entire clause 37 as not satisfactory, in sympathy with what is not a very satisfactory Bill. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the Data Protection Act, the significant and real concerns about blacklisting, and the responses from lawyers from Liberty and various other organisations about the inadequacies of this clause in respect of the European convention on human rights. I ask hon. Members to support our amendments.
Like most people in the Chamber, I am unaware of why we need assurers. The certification officer, under the trade union and labour relations—TULR—regulations, clearly states that when a trade union submits its annual accounts, its AR21, it must also submit a copy of the names and addresses of the membership. I am puzzled—discombobulated, perhaps—by the fact that the Government are suggesting that we need somebody in the middle to ensure that that happens, because if a union does not submit its membership with its AR21, it is in big trouble with the certification officer.
I might be corrected on this, but—perhaps because he has not been consulted—the certification officer’s website does not refer to whether many trade unions are submitting their accounts under the AR21 without submitting the names and addresses. Why on earth—please, somebody tell me why—are we now looking to operate with someone called an assurer? I am assured already, Mr Sheridan. I worked in the trade union movement and greatly disliked all the regulations heaped on the unions by the Conservative Government, but, as with everything else, we had to forge ahead. We adhered to the law.
I am puzzled. I am concerned about the fact that trade unions must amend their rulebooks to provide for the appointment and removal of an assurer. Who are those assurers? Their job is simply to make sure that the union, as far as practicable, can provide what the Bill requires in terms of the names and addresses of members. For fear of repeating myself, I am just desperate for an answer. There is no need for it.
Of course it is. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
What qualifications will the assurers—classed as independent under these provisions—need? What will make them qualified? Will it be that they are thoroughly decent people who dislike certain things or like other things? We should remember that it will be incumbent on the trade union to do this under its rulebook.
My hon. Friend is asking about the requirements of the job specification and person specification for an assurer. It seems to me that they must include the spite and vindictiveness reflected in the Government’s attitude to trade unions as seen in the Bill.
Although I fully agree with my hon. Friend, there are probably better ways of doing it. I fear that again I am repeating myself, but everything the assurer is supposed to do is carried out under the TULR regulations.
In my trade union, the rulebook can be changed only by a change of rule motion to congress, and a rule change congress happens every two years. Has my hon. Friend any idea how my trade union—the GMB, one of the biggest trade unions—could comply by making the change to the rulebook under the restrictions the Bill will place on it for the 12 months prior to a general election?
It is up to a trade union and its membership to decide what they want in that union’s rules. It should not be for Government diktat to insist what an independent trade union should and should not have in its rulebook—surely that is undemocratic. Under the democratic process, what should and should not be in a union’s rulebook is decided at conferences following discussions among delegates from the regions, not by the coalition Government. My hon. Friend raises an interesting point because if the Bill is passed, must the 166 trade unions on the certification officer’s website immediately call conferences so that they can adhere to the new legislation? What will happen if they do not?
As always, my hon. Friend is making a fantastic contribution, but if he reads several of the qualifications in the impact assessment, he will see that the strange thing is that the vast majority of the unions— 120 or more—will self-certify their membership audit certificates because they are so small.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, but it makes us ask why on earth the clauses are being proposed in the first place.
Why are we having assurers and who are they likely to be? With their position layered between the trade union movement and the certification officer, will they be legally qualified? Will they be lawyers or, as is likely, accountants, or will they just be thoroughly decent people? Will they simply be independent people? Could they be people in this House? We need to examine this extra layer of bureaucracy. There is no need for it whatsoever, but if we must have these assurers, who on earth will they be?
My hon. Friend is right that we need more clarity from the Minister about the role of the assurer and who the Government expect will take that on. Is that not why Labour Front Benchers were right to table amendment 109, which proposes conditions under which an assurer may not be reappointed, thus allowing a union to terminate any contract with them? That could address the situation of an assurer who worked for a law firm that was advising an employer with which the union was in dispute, because that person would clearly have a conflict of interest between their union role and that of advising the employer.
I am following my hon. Friend’s speech with interest. I share his puzzlement, but there might be a plausible explanation of why the role is being created. We know that great hordes of Tory and Lib Dem Members will be unemployed after the 2015 election, so this might well be a job creation programme to allow them to become assurers.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, although he puts it somewhat differently than I would.
My hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne referred to how the appointment of a duly appointed assurer could be terminated. Amendment 119 is simple. Under proposed new section 24ZC(3) an assurer’s appointment can be terminated if
“(a) a resolution has been passed at a general meeting of the trade union appointing somebody else instead or providing expressly that the person is not to be re-appointed”— whatever that means—or
“(b) the person has given notice to the union in writing of the person’s unwillingness to be re-appointed” or
“(c) the person is not qualified for the appointment in accordance with section 24ZB”.
If he is not qualified, how can he be sacked? He should not have the job in the first place. This is an outrage. It just needs some common sense to row back from these provisions.
On page 4 of the Government’s publication, “Reducing Regulation Made Simple”, the Government promise to free civil society groups from “unnecessarily burdensome regulation” so that they can “innovate, diversify and grow”. Shall we get the Minister a copy before we make any further progress on the Bill?
That would be helpful; it could be part of the consultation process, which has been sadly lacking in the case of this Bill.
The fourth way of getting rid of a duly appointed assurer is if
“(d) the person has ceased to act as an assurer by reason of incapacity.”
“(e) The person has breached the confidentiality of the Trade Union, or
(f) The person is in breach of his statutory duty or the terms of his appointment, by reason of incapacity or for any other reason which in the reasonable opinion of the union justifies his removal, or
(g) There are any other reasonable circumstances where the continuation of the assurer would be deemed inappropriate.”
That is fair. If a trade union has complied with the legislation and appointed an assurer, it should be up to the trade union to get rid of the assurer in those circumstances.
I could speak all day on the amendments—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”]—but others wish to speak. The Bill is totally flawed. I have no confidence in the clause, but it could have been worse if the assurer were appointed by someone else. If the assurer had been imposed on trade unions, that would have presented a bigger difficulty. Perhaps someone can tell me what would happen if the trade unions change their rulebooks, which in my view they should not need to do. They should not be dictated to by Government legislation.
The rulebook governs the trade union. It is the Bible of that trade union. What happens if, once the Bill is passed, Lenny McCluskey rings me up and says, “Mr Lavery, would you be an assurer for Unite?”? Would I be within my rights to say, “Of course I would”? Am I independent? Could I say, “Lenny, how much will you pay us?”? That is how daft the clause is. Where is the independence? Is anyone who was elected democratically by the rulebook of a union subject to challenge by the Secretary of State if they become an assurer? Do they have to be accepted by someone in Government to validate their independence, or can the unions pick who they want, pay them what they want, get what they want and submit what they would normally send in for the AR21?
Another problem is if these people are not independent. Are these assurers—what a name; surely whoever wrote this could have come up with a better one—there to “assure” the certification officer that what the trade unions say is correct? Good grief! This must be one of the worst-written pieces of legislation ever to come before the House. Government Members are embarrassed about it. That is why we have not seen a soul on their Benches today. It is unbelievable that they have wheeled out the Liberal Democrats to speak on this Bill. Sometimes people never learn. Well, let us see what happens.
There is huge potential for an increase in blacklisting. Adding this extra layer of bureaucracy will mean that the assurer will have powers under the Data Protection Act, together with the certification officer, to go to a trade union within reasonable hours and demand to see the names, addresses and other details of its members. We already have the problem of blacklisting in the trade union movement, which at least the Liberal Democrats have accepted, because the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has said that he understands that there has been a problem and that if we have evidence that blacklisting is continuing he is prepared to do something about it. Fair game, but we all understand that it still takes place.
Blacklisting is a scourge on society. It means that ordinary, hard-working people find themselves unemployed. The construction industry is a great example of this. People finish a job and apply for one elsewhere with a different company, but find that there are these secret organisations. Who is to say that the chairman of one of those organisations—we will not know who they are, because the organisations are secret—could not be an assurer for one of the major trade unions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the impact of blacklisting on ordinary working people. It is something that we should all be concerned about. Is that not also why it was right for Opposition Front Benchers to table amendment 117, which would make it clear that a union should not have to provide information when doing so would compromise its obligations to protect members’ personal data under the Data Protection Act? That is absolutely crucial, and it is the least that the Government should concede today.
That is a very important point, and it was discussed earlier. There is a legal contradiction in relation to the trade union’s obligations under the TULR regulations to adhere to the Data Protection Act, which protects members’ private and personal details from being released. The new legislation gives powers to the likes of the assurer. Who knows who these assurers will be and what they could do with that information? It is therefore very important that we look at this. These assurers could be anybody. It would be very difficult to know whether they are part of an organisation that assists in blacklisting. The confidentiality of people in the workplace is a live issue. Why add another layer of bureaucracy by having these assurers? It is absolute poppycock. It is nonsense. Whoever dreamt it up should be fired. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are affected by blacklisting and the situation could get an awful lot worse if the Opposition amendments are not accepted. Like many others here, I am sure, I have spoken to people who were not even aware that they were on a blacklist but subsequently found out that, for years, the reason why they had been unemployed, their kids had not had the best uniforms at school and they had been on benefits was that they had been on a blacklist. That seriously concerns me.
There is a huge problem with confidentiality and with conflict resulting from the legal interpretation of the Data Protection Act and the 1992 Act. We have to support the amendments and try to kick out this absolutely hopeless Bill.
Clause 37 is all about the implications of appointing an assurer. As other Members have said, we have to draw to the Government’s attention the irony of the enormous added burden that the clause will impose on trade unions, given that we work in the most regulated part of the voluntary sector. The provision is absolutely unnecessary and is politically motivated. I had to say that before I turn to the two amendments I am most concerned about.
Why do people join trade unions? Sometimes it is because their friends join, and sometimes in their workplace it is just the done thing to join. Some people join to have an insurance policy in case they get into trouble or picked on. Many join when they are first employed and want to maintain their membership as they get promoted up the ladder.
In workplaces where the majority are in a trade union, there are no secrets. Everybody knows who is in the union and it is common for both the lowest paid and most senior members of staff to be in the trade union. When I was a lay rep, I negotiated on behalf of my members and the senior manager I was negotiating with was a member of my branch of my trade union. That is common when a workplace has a high density of union membership.
However, in other workplaces, people who rise up the ladder and become senior managers may not want their managerial colleagues or the work force to know that they are in a trade union. Do not think that it is just those at the bottom end who do not want people to know that they are in a trade union.
People are also at their most vulnerable when there is no recognition in a workplace. Sometimes their jobs are under threat. People get victimised out of the door because the management have found out that they are union members; I have seen that on numerous occasions as a union official. As we discuss the clause, we have to look at the real world and how things work in practice, rather than at what is, frankly, an academic diatribe.
In the real world, my hon. Friend, like me, will have received hundreds of e-mails and letters about part 2 of the Bill. At her recent advice surgeries, how many people have been saying, “Do you know what, Julie, we need to appoint an assurer to ensure openness and transparency in the trade unions”?
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that not a single person has said that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said, what does “assurer” even mean? It is such a nonsense of a description. As I said, we have to work in the real world. Good legislation needs to understand and relate to the real world, but nothing in clause 37 does, according to my knowledge and experience.
On amendment 112, let us look at the real world—the practicalities. This is about employers sharing information and accurate details with trade unions. Where there is a good relationship and a good recognition agreement, the unions work hand in hand with employers because if businesses do well, union members do well, and there is therefore complete transparency, openness and sharing of information. However, if that situation does not exist, that is not the case. The TULR regulations already set the requirements on the maintenance of the membership system. Various rulings have said that reasonable steps have to be taken to make sure that the membership records are accurate.
In my personal experience—that is where we can all draw our information from—bad employers will do anything to make trade union records wrong. That does not happen only in relation to membership checks for industrial action ballots, which are the most onerous and time-consuming things a trade union official will ever do. In can be a case of trying to get recognition in a company where members have been recruited. Usually it is when members in an unrecognised work force have problems that they go to a trade union. Time, energy and effort will have been spent recruiting the number of members to hit the threshold required to be able to apply for recognition. It is unbelievable the steps that employers will take to try to scupper those numbers. They will suddenly take on temporary workers. If the union is applying for recognition for a particular part of the work force, they will move people from one part of the company to another to suddenly boost the numbers so that the required percentage is not reached. The idea that employers of that mindset will share information about our members is ridiculous.
I would like to run through some of the things that we did when I was a trade union official to try to ensure that our membership records were as up to date as possible. A couple of times a year we sent out magazines to every single member of the trade union, and there was always a big advert saying, “If you move house, change jobs or change your telephone number, let us know.” It has become increasingly hard to keep membership records accurate. Historically people had land lines and did not change their telephone number; nowadays, a lot of people do not have land lines and mobile phone numbers can change quite frequently. There are an enormous number of inaccurate phone numbers in the records of trade unions, as there will be, I suggest, in any organisation. The situation is incredibly difficult. Any other mailing to members would have another advert or a paragraph saying, “If any of your details have changed please let us know.” We had branch audits where it would be a specific task in a certain branch to go through the membership records and physically talk to people about them. I do not think that trade unions could do any more to keep track of their members.
Another issue is that the world has changed. This goes back to my point about having to be practical; in my view, nothing in this clause is practical. Trade union workplace branches, which historically the unions were built on, virtually do not exist any more because the world of work has changed. People do not start work when they leave school and stay there until they retire. We do not have mass employers of thousands of people where people remain in their jobs and can gain promotion and go through the ranks in one company. That is not today’s world of work. In those days, it was quite straightforward to keep track of the membership.
All those things have made the situation more difficult. I hate the idea of what the clause proposes. It is saying that some random person on the street—the assurer, whoever this person is and from whatever background—could challenge what is happening and say, “You haven’t kept your membership records correct.” What is the level of leeway going to be? Where will reasonableness come into this?
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case against the Bill. Given her vast experience of involvement in the trade union movement, is she able to think of any circumstances in which a trade union would think it was in its own interests not to keep accurate membership records?
No, absolutely not. Trade unions would welcome anything to help them keep more accurate records, because of the amount of time they spend trying to communicate with their members. That argument is a misnomer—it is ridiculous.
On amendment 117, the issue that I am particularly concerned about—for the reasons I gave earlier about the vulnerability of people who join trade unions—relates to the Data Protection Act and the obligations on trade unions to keep information safe and secure and to not let anybody else access it. I would not like my personal information passed randomly to everybody and asunder. Some of my information is public, but my personal information, which my trade union has, should remain personal and be given only to the people I choose to give it to. The Bill’s proposals make that information vulnerable.
It has been suggested that the information could be dealt with by branches and lay reps, but that is ridiculous. They do not have the capacity. Usually, they are in full-time jobs and do their functions as a lay official in their spare time, above and beyond their working day. When will they get the time to fulfil this task? They simply do not have access to the same information as an official employed by a trade union to do that job. I am very concerned about that, because the data are sensitive and are classified as such by the Data Protection Act. They need to be treated as such. The clause lays the information wide open and this is the one area about which I think the Government need to think again.
I agree with all of our amendments, but I urge the Government to look again at amendments 112 and 117 in particular. I am really concerned that the clause has not been thought through and that it has not been written in a practical way that relates to the real world. If legislation is going to work, it has to do those things, and this Bill simply does not pass that test.
I want to follow on from the excellent exposé by my hon. Friend Julie Elliott of the rationale for the concerns of the Opposition and others. To be frank, I thought that we had won this argument. As my hon. Friend Ian Murray has said, we had a debate on blacklisting several months ago, in which there was cross-party understanding of the vulnerability that people feel in the work force. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central has said, that vulnerability relates not only to blacklisting, but to victimisation.
I raised the issue in 1997 and in 2003. We got some legislation that was not effective and then I convened the first meeting of the Blacklist Support Group, which brought together in 2008 all those workers with blacklisting cases that they wanted to pursue. One of the breakthroughs for us was the raids undertaken by the Information Commissioner, under the Data Protection Act, that exposed the scale of blacklisting, with nearly 4,000 people on at least one list. People are anxious for us to ensure that any future legislation does not set up a system that could make them vulnerable again.
It could be argued that some of our amendments are a belt-and-braces approach, but this is about restoring confidence. The tragedy in the past—I do not mean to be hypercritical of any organisation by saying this—was that it was not just employers exchanging blacklist information. We now know that it was also coming from the police and security services and, actually, some renegade trade unionists, who passed information to employers who then went on to compile a blacklist. That is why, if we are to establish a new system that gives the certification officer a wide range of responsibilities and that appoints—in the words of my hon. Friend Ian Lavery—the bizarrely named assurer and inspectors, we need to ensure that there is a belt-and-braces approach so that they are properly tasked with abiding by the duty of confidentiality. That is why our amendments are so critical.
Amendment 107 states that it is important that the assurers
“have a duty of confidentiality to the trade union”.
It is critical that the trade union has confidence that those officers have such a duty. It is also critical, as amendment 108 sets out, that when those individuals are appointed, their qualifications are known and they are qualified to do the job. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck does get the job and the wage from Len McCluskey. I am sure that he is completely qualified to do the job. There needs to be some assurance that the people who are appointed are qualified to do the job. In addition, there must be a process by which assurers can be dismissed if they breach confidentiality. That is also dealt with in the Opposition amendments, which would assure people that their concerns about the use of this information for blacklisting and victimisation are taken seriously in the Bill.
I share the concerns about line 28 on page 41, which states that the duty of confidentiality involves taking “all reasonable steps”. That is not acceptable because it is not powerful enough. Amendment 118 would replace those words with “all necessary steps”. We must ensure that any action that is taken goes beyond reasonableness; it must be necessary and effective.
Further down page 41, the circumstances are set out in which a member’s name and address are permitted to be provided. The list includes the member’s consent, but that seems to be overridden by a range of other situations in which the certification officer may provide names and addresses.
I commend my hon. Friend for the work on blacklisting that he has done in Parliament. Is he as concerned as I am about proposed new section 24ZG(3)(d) to the Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which states:
“where it is required for the purposes of the discharge of any of the functions of the assurer”?
That seems to be very wide-ranging.
I have no idea what that means. It has such a range of interpretation that it gives the assurer the ability to provide information to virtually anyone for any purpose. It will undermine the confidence of workers who have experienced blacklisting or victimisation and workers who are currently at risk if the Bill is passed in this form.
One of the reasons why there may be a disclosure of information is
“where it is required for the purposes of the investigation of crime or criminal proceedings.”
In the real world of industrial relations, many Opposition Members have seen a crime being alleged because of the process of picketing. Because the list includes the investigation of an alleged crime, the certification officer will be able to hand over the names and addresses of pickets who are accused of action that could be construed to be illegal. That will undermine people’s ability to exercise their democratic rights as trade unionists by undertaking picketing or other forms of industrial action.
I am anxious about the whole clause. It flies in the face of the assurances that have been given in the House that blacklisting and victimisation will be addressed. People have been blacklisted or victimised simply because they are trade unionists or health and safety representatives. On the blacklist that we discovered, names had been misinterpreted and the wrong people had been identified. Some people had been blacklisted simply because they had undertaken political activities unrelated to trade union activities.
The Opposition amendments simply try to gain the assurance that a duty of confidentiality will be placed on the officers who will implement the new regime. I do not find that to be excessive. It will not introduce burdens on trade unions, the certification officer or the assurer. It will simply clarify their legal duties. One of their legal duties must be to protect the information that they are inspecting or, to use the new verb, “assuring” as a result of this legislation.
I urge the Government to accept the amendments. I hope they do, but even if they cannot, they can at least take the spirit of what Opposition Members have said and return with their own amendments to ensure that there is a duty of confidentiality on the officers concerned; that the qualifications can be properly examined when the assurer is appointed; that assurers can be dismissed if there is a breakdown of confidentiality; and that there is absolute security for the information the assurer guards and controls on behalf of the trade union.
I welcome the debate on clause 37 and the amendments and I shall respond to some of the remarks hon. Members have made. Clause 37 gives credibility to the maintenance of trade union membership registers to members, employers and the wider public.
As hon. Members know, unions are already required to report on their financial affairs. They need to appoint an auditor, which gives the accounts authority. When a large union submits its membership on its certificate, the Bill provides the same kind of independent assurance that is provided in financial affairs. For the larger unions, that assurance needs to be independent if it is to be credible, which is why trade unions of more than 10,000 members must appoint a qualified independent person to provide the membership audit certificate, which will state whether, in the assurer’s opinion, the union’s systems are satisfactory in relation to compliance with the duties to maintain an accurate register—[Interruption.] If Angela Smith wants to intervene, I am happy for her to do so—[Interruption.] I apologise if I did not get the hon. Lady’s exact constituency name quite right. I should have referred to her as the Member for Barnsley and Penistone or whatever. She had a slightly different constituency in the previous Parliament.
The clause provides an order-making power for the Secretary of State to define who may act as an assurer. Somebody cannot act as an assurer if the union has grounds to believe they would not act competently, or that their independence might be called into question. For example, union officers or employers may not act as an assurer. In practice, the assurer will need to be somebody who can understand how records are stored, collected and updated, so that they can provide the audit certificate. They might want to know how the union collects new member data and how members are reminded to keep their details up to date—Julie Elliott described how a union with which she had been involved did that regularly. The assurer might also want to know how unions update the register once changes are notified.
Unions will need to set out in their rules the process for appointing and removing an assurer. We have provided flexibility for the union, but none the less, certain provisions will apply regardless. An assurer may be removed by resolution, or be automatically re-appointed unless one of various specified conditions are met. However, it will always be up to the union to have the final say—it can appoint or remove an assurer by resolution.
That was discussed at length in the debate on the previous group of amendments and I refer the hon. Gentleman to my remarks in that debate. Clearly, we want to ensure that there is confidence in the names and addresses that trade unions use for the membership lists. There is agreement on both sides of the Committee that it is important that membership lists are accurate and up to date. That is an existing responsibility and duty on unions. The membership audit certificate will provide confidence in the list. It is much more proportionate for smaller unions, for which it is much easier to keep details up to date—smaller unions have fewer than 10,000 members, whereas some of the larger unions have more than 1 million members—to provide an assurance themselves. However, to have the credibility required for the larger unions, we must have that independence, which is where the assurer comes in.
As I recall it, the hon. Member for Wansbeck was talking about whether he would be in a position to do that where he had been elected within a union. I have made it clear that that would not be appropriate for union officers, because they need to be independent of the process. What is clear is that there will be an order published about assurers, which I will come on to shortly, and hopefully that will answer the question. We need to look at the terms of the order as it develops—it may well be that the hon. Gentleman has a promising career ahead of him as an assurer. It will be up to unions themselves to define the assurer’s contract terms, subject to minimum requirements, to ensure that they fit the nature of the organisation and are not disproportionately costly.
Various Members have raised concerns about data protection, and that an assurer’s access to membership details could risk breaching data protection rules. I hope to provide reassurance to Members that that concern is unfounded, but I recognise that it has been expressed. The assurer will be bound by current data protection rules, as well as by the additional confidentiality provisions set out in clause 37. The assurer owes a duty of confidentiality to the trade union, which is built into the appointment. They must not disclose the names and addresses of members, except where the member consents, where it is required for the purposes of their functions under the Act, or for criminal proceedings. They must also take all reasonable steps to ensure that there is no prohibited disclosure by other parties.
A certification officer, and any inspector appointed by the certification officer, have access to membership data, but that is immediately limited to the performance of their functions in relation to the register and the audit requirements under TULCRA—the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. It cannot be used for any other purpose. The duty concerns just the register of members’ names and addresses under section 24 of the 1992 Act. Other information should not generally need to be provided; the minimum amount only will be needed. Information is, of course, sensitive personal data. We absolutely accept that people’s names and addresses—often their home addresses—and whether they are members of a union are sensitive data. That will, therefore, fall under the protection of existing data protection rules. That will apply to any other personal data accessed under the powers in this Bill.
Ian Murray raised the ability of the certification officer to provide documents and a test of what a good reason would be. The certification officer will be able only to request documents that are relevant and where there is good reason to do so—a consistent test that is used elsewhere under the TULCRA legislation. For example, it is already applied by the certification officer for investigations of financial affairs.
It is important to note that there is no evidence of a problem with how the certification officer has exercised discretion. Indeed, respondents to the targeted consultation we undertook over the summer said that they did not feel there was necessarily a problem. I do not believe that hon. Members are necessarily making the charge that they would be concerned about how individuals undertake their duties. However, it is important to note that the test is available. If a union believes that the certification officer is overstepping their remit, it can withhold the information, and, ultimately, there is a right of appeal if there is an order made by the certification officer requiring production of the information.
Earlier, the hon. Lady mentioned that the details would be provided in an order and that they would be subject to the minimum requirements for the post of assurer. Will she explain what those minimum requirements are, so that we can assess how to vote? Also, how will she militate against potential conflicts of interest between the assurer and other clients they might have?
I will come on to the issues relating to the assurer. I would like to deal with data protection sensitivity and turn to the issue of blacklisting before I come back to the specifics about the assurer, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South was asked by Steve McCabe about penalties if there is a breach of data protection or confidentiality issues. Various protections are in place. The assurer would have to comply with the Data Protection Act. If they did not do so, they would be in breach of their contracts, so as well as being removed, the union could sue them. However, the assurer would also be a data controller, so the Information Commissioner could take action. The Information Commissioner has significant powers under the Data Protection Act, which include serving an enforcement notice setting out action that the data controller must take and—where required to address a serious contravention of the duty—imposing a fine of up to £500,000. Failing to comply with an enforcement notice by the Information Commissioner is also an offence, so there are significant protections in place.
John McDonnell and others raised the important issue of blacklisting. Let me reiterate on the record—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have said this on various occasions in the House—that the blacklisting of trade union members is unacceptable and illegal. Following an investigation, of which the Committee will be aware, that uncovered the Consulting Association’s blacklist, the law was strengthened at the end of the previous Parliament by the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010. That was also when the maximum fine for a breach of data protection rules was increased to £500,000.
The Committee will also be aware that the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs has been conducting an inquiry into this issue. In July, the Committee contacted the Secretary of State to say that it had new information that blacklisting continues. We have always encouraged anyone with evidence of blacklisting to come forward so that we can investigate. The Scottish Affairs Committee is the first to get in touch formally to say that it possesses new information. We are grateful to the Committee for passing that information to the Department. We have referred it to the Information Commissioner’s Office, as the appropriate body to investigate any breaches of the Data Protection Act. I understand that the office is requesting more information from the Committee, so that it can examine it and investigate. My right hon. Friend and I will of course continue to take a close interest in this matter. If any evidence of blacklisting is found, the perpetrators must feel the full force of the law.
Let me turn to the amendments in this group. Amendment 107 would make the assurer owe a duty of confidentiality to the union and its members—this deals with the concerns raised about data protection. I hope that the protections I have outlined will reassure hon. Members about compliance with the existing legislation, even though it is not explicitly mentioned in part 3—the convention is to keep legislation concise and not to repeat existing legal requirements. I am happy to reassure the Committee and put it firmly on the record that compliance with the Data Protection Act will be necessary by anyone who handles sensitive data.
Amendment 108 would require the Secretary of State to set out eligibility criteria for the assurer—this goes to the point about the future career ambitions of the hon. Member for Wansbeck—along with what qualifications, status and experience assurers must have. Our approach will be the same as for independent scrutineers of trade union ballots and elections. It is important that the assurer has widespread credibility with unions, their members and the public. The order will say which organisations are eligible or list the criteria that must be met. We imagine that assurers will probably be recognised professionals, such as solicitors, auditors or independent scrutineers. The responses to our targeted consultation over the summer supported that approach. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman falls into any of those categories, but he might be interested to know that we will need to consult on the content of the order, and I give the Committee an assurance that we will do so. There will therefore be an opportunity—this is important—for unions, their members and the public, as well as the hon. Gentleman, to comment.
I gave some examples of where there might be a conflict of interest, such as where somebody was already an officer of the union, which would not be appropriate, as they would need to be independent. However, as I have set out, there will be a process in the order for outlining eligibility.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman and I want to make some progress.
Amendment 110 would mean that unions do not have to set out in their rules how they will appoint and remove an assurer. Not only is the amendment unnecessary, but it is more prescriptive than what we have set out in the Bill. Our intention is to allow unions more discretion over when they remove or appoint an assurer.
Amendment 109 would prevent the appointment or reappointment of an assurer when there was a breach of confidentiality or a breach of their statutory duties or terms of appointment, or when there were reasonable circumstances not to reappoint. Of course it is important that the assurer should take their duty of confidentiality seriously, but the amendments are not necessary to achieve that aim. We can trust the unions to do this, and they will be able to pass a resolution to get rid of an assurer for any reason. It will be up to the unions to decide. The relationship between the assurer and the union is rightly one for the union to define. We have added a minimum level of protection in the Bill to ensure that an assurer is not reappointed if they are not qualified, are incapacitated or have decided that they do not wish to be reappointed. In general, however, it is better that the union should be responsible for the terms of the relationship with the assurer. That will allow much more flexibility to deal with the individual circumstances of each union.
Amendment 111 would expect the assurer to give an opinion as to whether the union had complied with the duty to keep its membership register accurate and up to date. This would replace the current proposal to give an opinion on whether the union’s system for compiling the register was satisfactory for that purpose. What is being proposed in the amendment would be far more costly and onerous to the union. In some cases, the assurer might conclude that they needed to carry out a thorough audit of all the content of the register. We believe that a systems check is more proportionate, and that is what we are setting out.
Amendment 112 has been mentioned by Julie Elliott and others. It would add an additional requirement to the membership audit certificate. This would be to include the assurer’s opinion as to whether the employer had shared “timely and accurate details” with the union. The hon. Lady took the view that bad employers would try to prevent unions from having the right information. As I mentioned earlier, there is already statutory protection to ensure that unions cannot be held accountable for information that they do not possess, or for inaccuracies that are beyond their control. It is also important to note that we will produce guidance for employers, to help them to assist unions to comply. It is important that employers should comply with their requirement to provide information to unions, and we believe that that additional guidance will be helpful in that regard.
Amendment 166 seeks to assist the assurer by requiring the Secretary of State to produce guidance and define in statute what is “satisfactory” and “not satisfactory”. The amendment is either necessary or desirable. What is satisfactory or not will vary from one union to another, and a one-size-fits-all definition would be onerous for some and ineffective for others. Our approach is to retain flexibility. Assurers will be professionals, and it is reasonable to rely on their professional judgment and ability to apply these phrases appropriately. Ultimately, the membership audit certificate represents only the opinion of the assurer. It is only the certification officer who has the power to make a determination.
Amendment 116 would mean that the union’s assurer was entitled to require only the union’s data controller to provide the necessary information. This would be instead of being able to approach
“the union’s officers, or the officers of any of its branches or sections”,
as set out in the Bill. That could result in the assurer being unable to ask questions of the right people. They should obviously be able to question those who handle sensitive membership data, but they should also be able to question others who understand how those data are kept up to date. In some cases, that might be one and the same individual, but in others it might not be. So the form of words that we have used in the Bill, which is also used throughout the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, is much better.
Amendment 115 seems to suggest that a union should not be penalised for errors when the correct details are held by the employer. I have already set out why existing legislation renders such an amendment unnecessary. There is already a “reasonably practicable” test, and we will be issuing improved guidance. Amendment 117 would mean that the union could supply information to the assurer to help them to carry out their role only if it did not conflict with the union’s responsibility to comply with data protection requirements. I have already outlined the safeguards relating to data protection. The assurer will have to be able to see the register if they are to carry out their responsibilities effectively, and the amendment could prevent that from happening.
Amendment 119 also seeks further reassurance on the Data Protection Act, but that is unnecessary because it will already apply. Amendments 118 and 128 propose replacing the words “all reasonable steps” with “all steps necessary”. I must ask the hon. Member for Edinburgh South what steps he can imagine that are necessary yet unreasonable. Is he really suggesting that we want necessary and unreasonable steps to be taken?
Amendment 120 would change the disclosure requirements, but I have already set out the safeguards, so the amendment is unnecessary.
I hope that I have been able to reassure the Committee on a few points of concern. These measures will not present an unreasonable burden on unions and the safeguards in place against the misuse of data are more than adequate. This clause is necessary to provide independent assurance of the maintenance of large and complex registers. Clause 37 should stand part of the Bill, and I urge the hon. Member for Edinburgh South not to press his amendments.
Given the time, all I will say in summing up is that the Government cannot win the next general election on the arguments, so they will win it on—
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 3 September).
Question accordingly negatived.
The Chair then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Amendment proposed: 112, page 40, line 19, at end insert—
‘(c) Whether, in the assurer’s opinion, the trade union has taken all reasonable steps to ensure their membership register is up to date taking into account—
(i) that the union should not be held responsible for inaccuracies in cases where, in the assurer’s opinion, an employer is not sharing timely and accurate details, and
(ii) any other aspects that, in the assurer’s opinion, have been out of the control of the trade union in the maintenance of the membership register.’.—(Ian Murray.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee divided:
Ayes 223, Noes 284.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In light of the fact that so many issues could not be debated in Committee, have you had any notice from the Government that they intend to give House more time on Report so that those issues may be debated properly?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have had absolutely no notice of that. However, as he is well aware, it is up to the Government to make the timetable.