My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 28B, 28C, 28D and 31A, standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Stevenson.
To give some brief context to those who are new to this subject, we have moved from Part 1 of the Bill to Part 3, which is concerned with trade union administration. It seeks to strengthen the public supervision of union membership records, with a duty on unions to produce a membership audit certificate annually. Unions with more than 10,000 members would have additionally to appoint an assurer—a new term to me in public life—whose job would be to check the veracity of union records. Perhaps this is a precedent, and perhaps we could do with assurers to be appointed to check some companies’ tax affairs from time to time.
Why is union membership being singled out? Are there are a lot of complaints? Is there widespread public concern? Is there a lobby around to say that there are some scandals in this area? Let us have a look at the facts: between 2000 and 2004, the last time that any records were taken, six complaints had been received by the certification officer, and there has been only one since, which is current. Is there public pressure for this intrusion into internal union affairs? No one knows who has been asking for it because the Government have never been able to provide any information about that.
This provision seems to be the product of a fevered imagination, convinced that it is quite legitimate to pile a load of red tape on to unions when generally the policy is against red tape and overregulation. In today’s Conservative Party it does not actually seem necessary to have a reason to make union lives more expensive and complex; it is almost a reflex action that they wish to perform from time to time.
It is not just about the expense and trouble that this part of the Bill is likely to cause. The measures have only one parallel in the EU: in Malta, in connection with a specific circumstance of rivalry between unions, a public official got involved in checking membership records. Every other country keeps the state and employers out of union membership records.
This is not a theoretical discussion about what might happen. There are 2,000 cases currently in procedure over allegations of blacklisting, and the people being accused—some of them have admitted it—are eight of the major blue-chip construction companies in this country. This involves sites as huge as the Olympic site, which of course is being regenerated for other purposes, and the Crossrail site, which we are all aware of if we travel around central London. There is a risk of information falling into the wrong hands and becoming available to people who should not see it. We know that the more people get hold of records and information of this kind, the more likely it is to fall into the wrong hands and be used to people’s detriment.
That is what this series of amendments is about. They would strengthen protection for the individuals. The Data Protection Act 1998 classed trade union membership as “sensitive personal data”, and was quite correct to do so. A specifically protected category under the EU data directive is a derogation for unions. Unions should be affected only where there is a substantial public interest. Where is the substantial public interest in this measure? There have been hardly any complaints, and very few people have spoken on this subject.
Amendment 28A would make clear that the assurer, this new creature, would have a duty of confidentiality to the union and its members, and a duty at all times to abide by the trade union’s own obligations under the Data Protection Act to protect the personal information and data of members. It is important that we recognise that this information is very sensitive and the assurer should have a duty of care and proper responsibility. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept these rather simple points. After all, if you reverse the situation, will he be saying that there is no duty of confidentiality to the union and its members and no duty to help a union maintain its obligations under the Data Protection Act?
Amendment 28B would strengthen the hand of the union to get rid of an assurer who breaches confidentiality or some other statutory duty, or for some other justifiable reason. In the Bill, the only way in which an assurer can be sacked is by a resolution at a general meeting of members or delegates—an annual conference, if you like. That is limited scope indeed for termination of this position. Surely, a union, which will be paying the assurer, should be able to discharge a person who is unsuitable, just as it can an accountant, an auditor or its solicitor. The Bill’s assumption here is somehow that the assurer will be in conflict—an investigating officer looking into the affairs of a miscreant union and an adversary who must be protected. The Bill gives the game away on the Government’s rather hostile approach to what unions are doing and how they are administering their affairs.
Amendment 28C reinforces the point about the assurer complying with the Data Protection Act, and reminds us that information can easily be obtained nowadays by people who should not have it, particularly if it becomes too widely available.
Amendment 28D would narrow the circumstances under which the names and addresses of members can be disclosed. It would specifically remove requests from the certification officer, the government registrar, who already has significant powers over trade unions in this area but not normally to get personal data. We are trying to stop him from being able to ask for personal, individual data. There is an inspector in addition to the assurer in this cast list of new people who will be rolling around union administration. We also want to stop an inspector, appointed by the certification officer, getting this individual, personal information. In effect, we are seeking to establish the principle that the disclosure of an individual’s name and address is done only with the individual’s consent, and not with some blanket power given to the assurer, the assurer’s officials and the certification officer. In this way, we are trying to help to protect against breaches of the Data Protection Act.
Amendment 31A would impose a penalty on an assurer who has breached the confidentiality obligations. There can be serious implications for the individuals whose information is misused; I mentioned the 2,000 blacklisting cases, and others are being investigated by the Scottish Affairs Committee. Individuals can be out of work for years if they find themselves on one of these lists. For an assurer who is inefficient or incontinent with the trust that has been given, it seems only right that they should feel that they too could be at risk if they get this area wrong. I beg to move.