Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 46 Number 13, May 14, 2016 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

In Parliament

Unjust Laws Receive Royal Assent

Since the last WWIE, the Trade Union Bill and the Immigration Bill have received the Royal Assent, meaning that they are now Acts.

We will carry further articles on these unjust laws. In this issue, for the information of our readers, we reproduce two articles on these Acts.

The Trade Union Act Is An Unjust Law, And It Spells Trouble

Carolyn Jones, Assistant Secretary, Campaign For Trade Union Freedom

The Trade Union Bill has now passed through its parliamentary stages, receiving Royal Assent on Wednesday May 4th - ironically, the 90th anniversary of the 1926 General Strike.

The Act will appear in the Queen's speech on May 18th, with implementation dates set at the convenience of the government.

It's true the Act is a shadow of the Bill first proposed, but dangerous details hide in those shadows. Rather than congratulate ourselves on what has been achieved, we must shine a light on the dangers ahead, exposing the intentions behind the Act and building on the growing opposition.

To do otherwise would be a disservice to future generations. It's our kids and their kids who will suffer if the power of trade unions to organise, to represent and to defend living standards are choked off by this anti-working class Act.

As expected, some of the more bizarre and extreme proposals in the original Bill have been jettisoned. Unenforceable attempts to monitor and control the use of social media during disputes have been dumped, as have plans to make everyone on a picket line show their personal data to the police, employers or anyone else who asks to see it.

But the Act still demands the appointment of picket supervisors who must make themselves known to police and employers and carry a letter of authorisation. Breaches of any of the restrictions will in future attract criminal charges. Similar legislation in Spain has been used to threaten pickets with imprisonment - threats so far resisted by the Spanish trade unions.

On ballots, ancillary workers associated with important public services are no longer captured by the double thresholds (but private-sector workers involved in public services could still be caught by the net) and the wording on the ballot paper is slightly less prescriptive but still extremely vulnerable to injunction.

But the "flagship" aspect and main purpose of this Act remains in place. The imposition of a 50 per cent turnout and an additional 40 per cent support requirement for workers in health, education, fire response, transport and border security, make it near impossible for those workers currently leading the resistance against privatisation and cuts to take industrial action.

According to an IER report, millions of workers will be denied the right to take action under these new thresholds.

These restrictions bring Britain once again into conflict with international laws. In February 2016 the Committee of Experts told Britain that education and transport should not be included in the government's list of "important services." Similarly, the International Labour Organisation has reasserted that when setting ballot thresholds, "account should only be taken of votes cast."

And yet the government pushed on. In response, unions quite rightly demanded the introduction of e-balloting to improve ballot turnouts and help unions reach the high thresholds. In an attempt to save the Bill from outright opposition, an amendment to review e-balloting and roll out a test programme was inserted by the Lords.

But the government has rejected the roll-out promise and instead kicked the e-ballot proposal into the long grass of an independent review.

And even when these new hurdles to strikes are navigated successfully, proposals to bus in agency workers - often vulnerable people coerced into taking positions under new universal credit rules - still lurk in the background.

On political funds the demand that members opt in rather than opt out will be delayed for 12 months and will only apply to new members. But the opt-in system is now law and threatens to undermine the political voice of trade unions.

And the bureaucratic nonsense of unions having to declare all political expenditure over £2,000 a year stands in complete contrast to the privacy and anonymity given to off-shore funds and off-shore Tory funders.

The election of a Labour government committed to removing this nasty Act grows ever more important if the political voice of the next generation of trade unionists is to be heard.

Proposals to ban check-off arrangements in the public sector have been dropped but only if the union wins the agreement of the employer and pays the admin costs. Fine where that works - but a constant threat to the negotiating position of unions where it doesn't.

The idea of giving concessions where agreement can be reached permeates much of the final Act. So the Bill proposed doubling the notice period that unions have to give employers on a ballot from seven to 14 days. That period has now been reduced back to seven - but only where agreement can be reached.

Similarly, the validity of a ballot was reduced to three months in the Bill, extended to six months in the Act or nine months, but again only where agreement can be reached.

If the government was really supportive of industrial relations being conducted by agreement, it would have introduced statutory procedures to encourage collective bargaining. Instead it has put in place yet more hurdles for unions to jump and created a statutory safety net for employers to fall back on should relations at work deteriorate still further.

On the freedom of unions to organise at work, the Lords removed the proposal to cap facility time. The government however reinstated it, promising to research and consult on the cost of facility time before returning to the same attack but with more detail.

Using public money to undertake costly research to use against public-sector workers is perverse, as is the imposition of the proposals on devolved governments.

And the backdrop to this malevolent Act is the newly empowered state surveillance officer. The new powers awarded to the Certification Officer (CO) remain much as they were in the original Bill.

The CO has powers to initiate complaints, undertake inspections including recording names, determine outcomes and impose fines of between £200-£20,000 on any national, regional or local branch on issues relating to political fund procedures and expenditure, internal elections, ballots and much more.

It's true the government inserted a clause saying the CO would not be "subject to directions of any kind from any Minister of the Crown as to the manner in which he is to exercise his functions.

But it's not the manner in which the CO does the work that is so objectionable. It is the nature of the work s/he undertakes that raises concerns and it is the nature of the work that is set by ministers.

This was a nasty Bill that's turned into a nasty Act. Parliamentary activity has delivered what it can in the face of a government determined to silence political opposition, cull collective action, criminalise solidarity on the picket line and strangle unions with bureaucratic red tape controlled by a state surveillance officer.

If this Act, like the 1971 Act before it is to be defeated, the immediate battle will be extra-parliamentary, led by workers responding to attacks on their standard of living and working conditions.

Those battles are already being fought in Britain, Spain and France and will continue to grow as current economic policies fail to deliver anything other than growing inequality and lack of opportunity.

In the longer term, Jeremy Corbyn and his team need to be given the space and time to develop alternative economic and industrial policies. Such policies will expose the political nature of Tory attacks and show how another narrative and political agenda is possible.

To that end, the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) is working on a manifesto for labour law which places trade unions back at the heart of economic, industrial and social regeneration.

In the meantime, the labour movement must do all it collectively can to educate, agitate and organise against this undemocratic, unnecessary and unfair Trade Union Act.

The Bill becomes an Act: what's been won, and what's been lost

Lisa Matthews, coordinator at Right to Remain

Yesterday (12 May 2016), the Immigration Bill 2015-16 received Royal Assent, which means it now becomes the 2016 Immigration Act.

In those words, a great deal is bound up.

As we have written previously, the Act involves a hardening and an extending of the measures designed to create a "Hostile Environment" for migrants brought in by 2014 Immigration Act, including:

Cutting access to justice

The "deport now, appeal later" provisions are to far more immigration categories ("remove now, appeal later"), meaning even fewer people would have the right to appeal a negative immigration decision in the UK. The idea that people can simply appeal from the country they have been removed to, or have chosen to depart to, is not borne out by the facts and immigration statistics consistently show alarming levels of poor Home Office decision-making. Appeals are a vital part of accessing justice. With appeal rights removed, more people are forced to resort to judicial review, a very complicated area of law and with increasingly restricted legal aid coverage.

The right of appeal against decisions to refuse or discontinue asylum support has been removed, meaning many more people will be driven into destitution, a policy that has been admitted by government to be a deliberate attempt to force people out of the UK.

Extending internal border enforcement

Banks and building societies will be turned into border guards, required to periodically check the immigration status of account holders.

People with precarious immigration status will find it harder to rent accommodation Landlords will now be enabled to evict people whose immigration status means that they have 'no right to rent'. This is under controversial rules that have already shown an increase in discrimination against those who do have the right to rent but don't have the 'right' coloured skin or accent.

Criminalising irregular migration

The Act introduces new criminal offences for people working illegally, for driving whilst not legally resident in the UK, and creates a new criminal offence, with a maximum five year prison sentence, for landlords and "who know or have reasonable grounds to believe that their property is occupied by a person who does not have the 'right to rent'".

Opposition in Parliament and beyond

The Bill did receive more opposition than the similarly racist and divisive 2014 Immigration Act. In the third reading of the Bill in the House of Commons, it passed by 307 votes to 245. Despite this large vote against, it rarely seemed in doubt that the Bill would come into law, despite the condemnation of human rights campaigners and, well, most people with a conscience/common sense.

We must now begin to reflect on why that is so. There are several factors that have struck me as the Immigration Bill has made it's way through its many confusing stages.

Could the Bill have been stopped?

Firstly, there was a degree of pragmatic acceptance that the Bill was very likely to become law, and so energies were focused on diluting the toxic effect of it. Whilst the SNP made it clear that, as it stood, they would not accept the Bill, and many other MPs spoke against it, it would have required a big political shift away from dog-whistle politics to stop the Bill going through altogether. A big shift, but not an impossible one. It would require a great deal of collaborative work (and therefore compromise) for human rights and migrant rights NGOs to stand together with community campaigners and individual activists to put enough pressure on for a majority of MPs to oppose the Bill. Another Immigration Bill cannot be far away, however, as this government seems to want to introduce a new one every year, so there is an urgent need to consider this cooperative approach for our next battle.

An important point for reflection is that, if this unrelenting erosion of civil liberties, dignity and humanity, is being introduced to pacify anti-immigrant voters (or at least voters who have been convinced they are 'anti-immigrant'), is it actually working? As we have so often said about the policy of immigration detention - does the government lock people up in prison-like conditions to look 'tough' on immigration? The reality of detention is so unknown to the vast majority of the public that it doesn't seem a very efficient approach.

The Bill contained so much that was toxic, that the resources of those opposing it were further diluted as each interest-group attempted to brief MPs and peers on their key issue, and propose amendments to lessen the blow of the Bill. Many areas affected by this Bill (now Act) are highly technical or legalistic, and there are very few MPs or peers who could be expected to know enough about a particular specialist area to speak against it, and therefore campaigners and NGOs brief and lobby those MPs and peers but by necessity this means that attention is then on individual clauses of the Bill, rather than the overall impact it will have on us, as a society.

Faint silver linings

At Right to Remain, we were part of this lobbying, mainly through the Detention Forum. As well as supporting the Alf Dubs amendment to bring 3,000 lone child refugees from Europe to the UK, and the right to work for asylum seekers, we asked supporters to encourage their MPs to back the detention-related amendments. We agreed that there was no way that this Bill would be stopped, so we joined in campaigning to support amendments, even if they fell way short of the changes we would like to see.

Detention should be abolished, not just reformed, but at least we saw some (unexpected) progress.

As has been written elsewhere, this Immigration Bill was never supposed to be about detention. And yet, much of the parliamentary debate was dominated by this grave civil rights issue. The Bill, as written by the government, barely mentioned immigration detention, and yet the amendments targeting detention were among those that were debated until the bitter end.

Thanks to the tenacity of supportive MPs and peers, encouraged by the groundswell of popular opposition to detention, there were two important concessions wrung out of this process.

1: for the first time ever, there is now legislation that requires automatic judicial oversight of immigration detention.

Immigration detention is the deprivation of someone's liberty, and the current lack of judicial oversight over such a fundamental deprivation of rights is an outrage.

The UK detains more people, for longer, than any other country in Europe. Rather than the presumption of liberty being upheld (as established in law), the default position of the Home Office has been to detain, detain, detain.

The Home Office makes the decision to detain someone, and it is up to the person detained to challenge that detention. No judge, or indeed no-one acting in a legal capacity at all, looks at that initial decision to detain. A major decision on someone's life and liberty is taken with no independent scrutiny whatsoever.

The amendment that was finally passed to introduce this scrutiny requires an automatic bail hearing after four months of detention, if the person has not applied for bail themselves within that time.

Notwithstanding our position that there should be no use of immigration detention whatsoever, this amendment clearly does not go far enough. The people most likely to be in need of automatic judicial oversight (unable to apply for bail themselves), will be those with complex needs, who should not be detained in the first-place. Four months is an unconscionable length of time to detain anyone. Further more, people facing deportation after serving a criminal sentence are not included within this protection, despite being the group of people detained for the longest periods.

Lords Ramsbotham and Baroness Hamwee fought tirelessly to reduce the period of time before automatic judicial oversight is brought in, and made moving speeches in the final House of Lords debate on Tuesday.

2: There is now a 72 hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women (subject to extension by ministerial approval).

As the Detention Forum's statement on the Bill says:

On the surface, this new policy for pregnant women is an extension of a safeguarding time limit currently available for families with children who are facing return to their country of origin. However, it is unclear how this is going to be achieved without a mechanism equivalent to the Independent Family Returns Panel which has been playing a vital part in restricting the number of families with children who are detained at Cedar Pre-Departure Accommodation.

Whilst it is depressing not to be able to convince parliament of what would seem such a basic demand - an absolute ban on the detention of pregnant women - this is still a significant step forward, thanks to the work of Women for Refugee Women and the many campaigners who have kept up the pressure for this demand.

A long road

These two detention reforms required vast amounts of effort, good will, patience and diplomacy to achieve, and their significance should not be understated.

However, the fight is far from over. These amendments are a long way from the radical reform of detention called for by the cross-party parliamentary inquiry into detention, and even further from the abolition of immigration detention can be won.

When the Immigration Act comes into force, many people's lives will be a lot worse, and we need to evidence this, challenge it, and work to overturn these measures.

For now, it's time to recharge and reflect, celebrate what has been achieved and yet mourn what has been lost. We've got a long road ahead of us.


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