Government monitored strike action to illegally penalise staff

The government monitored civil servants’ participation in industrial action so that it could illegally hinder their career prospects and block their promotion, according to government papers from 1984 released this month by The National Archives.

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By Joshua.Chambers

23 Jan 2014

A 1984 letter from chancellor Nigel Lawson to the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, considered whether to introduce a formal system of marking civil servants’ employment records when they took part in industrial action called by their trade union. They decided to continue with an existing informal system of marking civil servants records, and to use this to help decide civil servants’ careers.

Calling for ministers to ensure their officials kept lists of strikers, Lawson wrote: “I would ask colleagues to ensure, as a matter of priority, that the measures in the pipeline for emphasising the obligations of managers at times of industrial disputes are actively pursued, and to check that informal procedures for more selective monitoring of the reliability of staff, and control of allocation of staff to sensitive posts, are effective.”

A report attached to the letter suggested that involvement in a strike should count against civil servants in promotion decisions, saying: “In considering promotions or postings to management levels departments must necessarily take into account all relevant information, including the attitude of staff towards industrial action and their obligations as managers.

In this context participation in industrial action is a relevant factor in forming a judgement on the suitability of an individual for management positions…. it will be a factor to be taken into account at the appropriate levels along with an individual’s record as a whole in reaching decisions of this kind.”

Whilst the government had the right to monitor strike participation, discriminating against strikers was barred by the European Convention on Human Rights – which covered the UK. Edward Cooper, national practice group leader at employment lawyers Slater & Gordon, told CSW the government would have had “a case to answer” under the convention.

Further, he said, the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 banned employers from penalising trade union members – and these files are “evidence of conduct which may be the tip of the iceberg of an attitude towards trade union activities which would have been unlawful”.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson noted that such discrimination is now illegal, and said: “The government recognises that unions can play a constructive role in a modern workplace. Participation in industrial action is recorded only so that the necessary deduction can be made from pay.”

Dave Penman of the FDA trade union, pointing to current FDA membership in the security services, said: “The government has nothing to fear from trade union members – even those doing some of the most sensitive work in the country.”

The 1984 papers also reveal the existence of “the Purge Procedure” – under which civil servants suspected of “sympathising” with “subversive” organisations could be removed without appeal. Asked whether this procedure still exists, the Cabinet Office said it does not comment on security matters.

See also: CSW's full feature on the 1984 papers

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