Trade Union Bill may violate human rights, Tories’ own watchdog warns

© Toby Melville
The Conservative government’s Trade Union Bill may impose “potentially unlawful” restrictions on the right to strike, the government’s own human rights watchdog has warned in a new report.

The report, released by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as the House of Lords prepares to debate the bill on Monday, found “the regressive nature of measures” may violate the UK’s obligations under international human rights treaties. 

Loran McGregor, a member of the EHRC, said: “As it stands, the Trade Union Bill is in danger of imposing potentially unlawful restrictions on everyone’s basic human right to strike.

“Joining a trade union and peacefully picketing outside workplaces is a right not a privilege, and restrictions have to be properly justified and proportionate.”

The legislation would impose several new hurdles for strikers, including the mandated selection of a picket supervisor who must wear an identifying badge and give personal details to the police. The Bill would also give ministers the power to make amendments to legislation concerning the amount of time members can spend on union activities at work, known as facility time, within the public sector.

“In the Commission’s analysis, these open-ended powers could be used to introduce disproportionate interference to freedom of association rights under Article 11 [of the European Convention on Human Rights],” the report says.

Employment Minister Nick Boles dismissed the EHRC’s concerns.

“We have carefully considered all of the legal issues throughout the passage of the Bill and are completely satisfied that we are compliant with our international obligations,” he said.

Trade Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This Bill isn’t about how many people vote in a strike ballot. It’s about the government’s real plan: taking power away from workers and giving it to the bosses.

“People aren’t stupid. They know who this Bill is really for.”

Labour leaders have called for the Bill to be scrapped altogether, decrying it as partisan and unfair because of a provision which would require Labour affiliated union members to opt in to pay a levy to the party, rather than paying automatically with an option to opt out under the current system.

Labour estimates it could lose up to £6 million (US$8.7 million) in funding from the change, according to a leaked document seen by the Guardian.

Former Labour General Secretary Lord Collins told the newspaper: “These changes are entirely partisan, unfair and going to hit the income of the party and union political funds very hard.

“No balancing measure is being taken to cap the donations of the Conservative Party.”