Priti Patel: Union members must have opt-in choice for party donations - and political fund levies to end abuse
Priti Patel is MP for Witham.
Just imagine if you paid for a service from an accountant, a lawyer or a plumber and they placed an additional charge onto your bill without informing you. It does not feature on your invoice despite the charge apparently being optional so you never know it’s been taken from your wallet. Or if you took out a gym membership or social club membership and they added a levy onto your subscription fee but gave you no information about it. It was your choice whether to pay it or not but greed or incompetence denied you the chance to decide. I am sure that most people would not be too pleased and may even report the culprits to trading standards.
But this is what could be happening to millions of trade union members each year as trade union membership forms fail to notify members of the political levy added to their membership fees. They are having money taken from their pockets which is handed over to the Labour Party and put into political funds without them even knowing. The underhand ways unions are adding to their political funds are quite shocking and demonstrate how they and the Labour Party are prepared to treat union members as cash cows.
Large public sector trade unions the GMB and PCS fail to advertise on their membership forms that subscription fees include an optional levy let alone giving them the right to opt-in or opt-out of paying. I pointed this out in the recent report I produced on trade unions and the Kelly report into Party funding was also critical of the fact that members do not make a positive decision to opt-in to paying the affiliation fees to Labour and the political levy. Even the Unite Union’s Parliamentary branch for MPs’ staff does not inform members, which may include Conservative and Lib Dem staffers that they are contributing to Labour Party coffers.
The largest public sector Union, Unison, also has an audacious scheme to coerce their members into paying a political levy. On their membership forms, members are given a choice as to whether to opt-in to paying the Affiliated Political Fund, which supports the Labour Party, or the General Political Fund. They do not disclose the cost of the levy but members who chose not to tick one of the choices still have to pay the full membership fee and do not have the money discounted. By law, trade union members who do not wish to pay the political levy “must be relieved from the payment of the political fund element of the normal periodical contributions”. But this has not stopped one representative of the Unison membership department maintaining that those who do not opt-in to paying a fund continue to pay the same membership rate as those who do. Stating in response to a membership enquiry they wrote:
“Your membership rate will not be affected whether you wish to contribute to any political fund or not. If you wish not to contribute to any political funds please indicate on the form or write a note and attach on your form with your request on it. Your subscription rate is entirely depends [sic] on your gross annual income plus a levy if your local unison branch has one.”
Another Unison official in their membership department has confirmed this position writing:
“Your subscriptions are the same paying a political fund or not. If you select a political fund, UNISON will allocate a small part of your subscriptions towards that political fund. If you don’t want to contribute to any political fund no money from your subscriptions will be allocated to a political fund.”
Despite Unison being legally required to relieve members of the political levy, they are clearly not doing so. So where is this ‘extra’ money going? According to the emails received from the membership department the amount that would otherwise cover the levy it could be assumed that the money will go elsewhere in Unison. But the truth is more alarming. Buried within the Unison rulebook it states in Section J Paragraph 8.8 that where members do not elect whether to contribute to the General Political Fund or the Affiliated Political Fund, “In default of election, the National Executive Council shall determine to which fund the relevant contribution shall be allocated.” This proves that Unison is allocating money from their members to bankroll their political fund and the Labour Party when members have taken an explicit decision not to opt-in to either of the political funds. So the practice of taking money from their members unjustly without their explicit consent and allocating it to the Labour Party and political funds is endemic in Unison. In any other sector, this would be viewed as an abuse that needs curtailing.
The scale of the problem of union members paying political levies unwillingly and unknowingly could be huge. According to figures from the Certification Office, 4.4 million trade union members contributed over £22 million in political levy contributions to 29 trade unions in the last year figures are available. Less than £18 million was spent and these unions, including the 15 affiliated to the Labour Party, have built up a cash stockpile of £19 million which can be deployed to support anti-Government campaigning or handed over to the Labour Party.
Even if a modest number chose not to pay the political levy, this would have a considerable impact on the trade unions’ and Labour Party’s ability to fund political campaigns. That is the real reason why they oppose greater transparency and accountability and why they do not want to give their members the explicit choice to opt-in which they deserve. This is also why in his recent comments on capping political donations Ed Miliband pledged to continue to support the opaque system of permitting members to opt-out rather than a more transparent system to require them to proactively opt-in. When seeking their backing in the Labour leadership contest, Ed Miliband claimed that:
“The real priority in this country is to say that trade unions are the cornerstone of a civilised society” (http://www.unison.org.uk/labourlink/pages_view.asp?did=11709).
But there is nothing at all civilised about the methods used by trade unions to pillage the pockets of their members without their consent.
With all of these dubious practices to bolster political funds, greater transparency and reform is urgently needed. Not only should union members be required to explicitly opt-in to paying the political levy, they must also be informed on their application forms of the amount of the political levy and where it is going. A further change could be to give union members a choice of which political party they wish to donate their political contribution towards. Reforms must also be made to require union members to make a positive decision to opt-in to paying a political levy each year and effectively renew their consent annually. Of course, by law, trade union members already have a right to notify their union that they do not wish to pay the levy but most will be as unaware of this right as they are that the levy is being taken from them. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher empowered individual trade union members by ending the ‘closed shop’ and brining them more democratic voting rights. This Government must be equally bold and by reforming the political levy they can cure one of the biggest abuses in political funding.