Today BIHR joined our sister human rights groups Liberty and Amnesty International UK in issuing a statement (below) raising our concerns about the Government’s current Trade Union Bill. We did this because we have concerns that if the Bill were passed in its current form the totality of the restrictions placed on working people’s rights to assembly and speak out over unfair treatment would be disproportionately restricted. Human rights, at their core, are about power, they are the standards that give us the people a voice when faced with the might of those with power against us.

The key word here is proportionality. It’s a fundamental and hugely practical part of what the Human Rights Act framework gives us in negotiating the complex questions of whether and how people’s basic human rights can be restricted. Like most rights protected in the Human Rights Act, the right to assembly (which includes peaceful protest and being part of a trade union), is not absolute, it can be restricted. Such restrictions need to be lawful and for a good reason such as protecting the rights of other people – but ultimately any restrictions must be proportionate. This means they should be appropriate and not excessive in the circumstances. There will of course be situations where government restrictions on trade union activities can be restricted in line with human rights law. Just last year the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Government’s statutory restrictions on the right to strike, particularly the ban on secondary industrial action,* finding that there was nothing in the facts that the prohibition had a disproportionate effect on the trade union’s rights to assembly.**

Equally, there will be times when proposals restricting the right to assembly are not proportionate, and this is where BIHR’s concerns about the Trade Union Bill fall. As Cathy Warwick, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Midwives, recently wrote “We live in a period of widespread industrial peace. The number of days lost to strikes across the whole economy has been lower in the last 25 years than at any other time in history. So it is surprising that an early priority for the Government, so soon after the election, is to introduce a new law to clamp down hard on the important right to strike.”

BIHR is concerned because as it stands the Trade Union Bill will create a significant number of legal and practical hurdles on top of current requirements to strike. The concern isn’t simply about any one proposal in isolation (although some do have the ghost of previous problems around potential blacklisting). Rather, taking the totality of the proposals, we are worried the system will be disproportionately stacked against working people. At the end of the day, when people are being treated unfairly by their employers, and attempts to resolve issues through negotiation fall on silent ears, it is important that each of us has the ability to join together and stand up for ourselves. The consultation on the Trade Union Bill closes on 9 September, we hope the Government will have a re-think, and ensure any new law is proportionate.

"The Trade Union Bill will create a significant number of new legal and practical hurdles in addition to those already placed in the way of people wanting to strike. Our concern isn’t simply about any one proposal in isolation but the totality of the proposals and whether the system will in future be disproportionately stacked against working people. When any of us is treated unfairly by our employer, and attempts to resolve issues through negotiation fall on silent ears, it is important that we have the ability to join together with colleagues and stand up for ourselves. The Government needs to have a re-think, and ensure any new law is proportionate."

Stephen Bowen, Director, BIHR

* Strike action against a different employer aimed at exerting indirect pressure on the employer involved in the industrial dispute
** National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers v. the United Kingdom (2014)

The British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR)
, Liberty and Amnesty International UK have today published a joint statement on the Trade Union Bill:

The government's plans to significantly restrict trade union rights – set out in the Trade Union Bill – represent a major attack on civil liberties in the UK.

By placing more legal hurdles in the way of unions organising strike action, the Trade Union Bill will undermine ordinary people’s ability to organise together to protect their jobs, livelihoods and the quality of their working lives.

It will introduce harsher restrictions on those who picket peacefully outside workplaces – even though pickets are already more regulated than any other kind of protest. Unions will be required to appoint picket supervisors who must wear armbands and carry letters of authorisation, the absence of which could expose their unions to legal action.

Further proposals out for consultation could mean unions are required to provide a protest plan to employers, police, and other State regulators, revealing in advance if they plan to use social media, including Twitter and Facebook during their campaign and what they plan to set out on websites and blogs.

Taken together the unprecedented measures in the Bill would hamper people’s basic rights to protest and shift even more power from the employee to the employer.

It is hard to see the aim of this bill as anything but seeking to undermine the rights of all working people. We owe so many of our employment protections to Trade Unions and we join them in opposing this bill.