11 February 2016
President of the Institute of Employment Rights Professor Keith Ewing claimed in a House of Lords Select Committee today that changes the rules governing trade unions’ political funds will lead to a weakening in the power of workers’ political voice.
Professor Ewing was invited to give evidence to the Trade Union and Party Funding Committee, which was set up by the House of Lords to scrutinise the impact of clauses 10 and 11 of the Trade Union Bill.
Clause 10 legislates to change the process whereby trade union members agree to contribute to political funds from the current ‘opt-out’ system to an ‘opt-in’ system. Furthermore, all existing members of trade unions will be given three months from the passing of the Bill into law to proactively opt-in to political funds in writing. Their decision to opt-in will become invalid every five years and they will be expected to renew their opt-in once more in writing.
Clause 11 refers to new obligations the Tories wish to impose on trade unions to report details of their political expenditure to the trade union regulator the Certification Officer in their annual return.
“The political voice of unions would be diminished [by the new rules]…when there is a cacophony of noise now from the other side,” Professor Ewing argued.
He stated it is likely that the proportion of trade union members opting in to political funds is likely to fall to the figure currently evidenced in Northern Ireland of around 25%. Some evidence even suggests it could fall to 10%.
The Committee highlighted that the proportion of trade union members contributing to political funds following the 1927 Act, which also required union members to opt-in, was 38%. However, Professor Ewing explained that this was at a time when collection stewards worked alongside members and met them face-to-face on a weekly basis to persuade them to make contributions.The process would now be conducted far more remotely and returns can therefore be expected to be significantly lower. He also argued that the popularity of politics was much higher in 1945 when contribution figures were at their highest under the opt-in process, and that this is likely to have been a factor.
Several Committee members hit out at trade unions over claims that their membership forms did not explicitly state that members could opt-out of political funds. Further evidence will be gathered and provided to the Committee to investigate whether or not this is true. However, Professor Ewing argued that the Committee was judging trade unions by stipulations that do not currently exist – there is no regulation specifically stating that information on the opt-out process must be present on membership forms. He suggested that if this was perceived to be a problem, then tweaking regulations around the way opt-out is communicated would be a much easier way to solve the issue than to overhaul the entire system towards an opt-in process.
Professor Ewing also argued that the additional regulations – that is, that opt-in must be provided in writing, that it must be renewed every five years, and that existing members must proactively opt-in three months after the Act becomes law – will worsen the situation for political funding of the Labour Party. However, he stated that the change to an opt-in system would make a “unique” case of trade unions, as no other membership organisation is subject to such rules, and that the process of opting in itself would have deleterious effects on party political funding even if these additional regulations were scrapped.
Watch his evidence below: