Revealed: Unite about to be investigated by the information commissioner for Falkirk fix

by Atul Hatwal

This week, the Labour party report into irregularities in the selection process for Falkirk West’s prospective parliamentary candidate, will be published. The selection procedure was suspended two weeks ago following allegations that Unite was fixing the contest in favour of its candidate – Karie Murphy.

The party had hoped to draw a line under the affair with the publication of the report. But, regardless of the findings of the inquiry, the row is likely to rumble on with the government’s privacy watchdog, the information commissioner, set to be called in.

The suspension of the selection was prompted by two main charges: that Unite members were signed-up for Labour party membership, with their subscription paid, without being told; and Unite and Murphy had privileged access to the local Labour party membership list.

Last week in the Herald, details of a letter of complaint sent to the Scottish party emerged. In it, a Unite member, living in Falkirk West wrote,

“Myself and two family members have been enrolled by Unite…I or my family did not fill in or sign any forms and wish to know what information the party holds about my family.”

Further allegations have been made that Karie Murphy and Unite have used the Falkirk West membership list to contact CLP members without members’ permission on at least two occasions.

If either of these claims is found to be true, Unite will have significantly breached the Data Protection Act.

Under the terms of the Act, each individual must have agreed before their personal details are passed to a different organisation. The law could not be clearer: point 1 of schedule 2 of the Act, which governs the conditions for personal data being used or “processed” by an organisation, states

“The data subject has given his consent to the processing”

At the point where Unite members’ personal details were registered with the Labour party, without their consent being first granted, the law would have been broken.

At the point where Falkirk West Labour party members had their details passed to Unite, without their prior consent, the law would, once again, have been broken.

Already party members in Falkirk, who believe their rights have been breached, are discussing the first step of action against the union: a formal complaint to the government’s information commissioner. This would trigger an investigation into the union’s conduct by the commissioner who ultimately has the power to bring a criminal prosecution.

Under the terms of the information commissioner’s remit, an investigation would not need to definitively prove a breach occurred, just that it was likely.

Any such inquiry would be hugely damaging to Unite’s reputation and would have major implications for Unite’s broader political strategy.

The union have been very open about their policy of packing winnable constituencies, which are selecting prospective parliamentary candidates, with their members; it is the central measure in their political strategy document.

Falkirk West has been cited as a model for union activity. Records of a recent Unite council meeting describe the union’s view of the seat,

“Last but very much not least, is the exemplary Falkirk. A seat where a candidate selection, to replace the disgraced Eric Joyce, is reasonably imminent…Using similar methods to Garston and Paisley, but at a much more intense level, led by the potential candidate, and very much supported by the local activist base, especially at Ineos [local employer] we have recruited well over 100 Unite members to the party in a constituency with less than 200 members.”

If Unite’s methods in Falkirk West are found to be illegal, then questions will be asked about its activities across the country with the potential that  crimes will have also been committed in many other constituencies.

The immediate challenge for Labour party managers though is what to do if the party’s inquiry largely absolves Unite of the most serious claims, as suspected by some local activists, but the information commissioner finds against Unite. The accusations of a cover-up to protect Unite would be immediate as would the damaging headlines.

At this stage, only one thing is clear: whatever the result of the inquiry, we won’t have heard the last about Unite and Falkirk West.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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5 Responses to “Revealed: Unite about to be investigated by the information commissioner for Falkirk fix”

  1. swatantra says:

    That’ll teach them to take on Progress.
    Having said that, why don’t Unite put up their own Independent UNITE candidate at the Falkirk election if they think they have a such a good message to sell? Unofficially of course! and lts see how much support the union has.
    There is absolutely no risk of splitting the vote and letting SNP or BNP or UKIP or Lib Dems in.

  2. paul barker says:

    This looks to me like a golden oppurtunity for The Labour Leadership to demonstrate what sort of Party they want & take on the extremists.

  3. John Reid says:

    Swatanra don’t give them ideas, it wasn’t. Only progress who didn’t like the stitch up

  4. Jon Baines says:

    You may well be right that this constitutes a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, but you are very wrong in declaring confidently that a lack of consent to processing of personal data is a prima facie breach of the DPA. The first data protection principle (Schedule One of the Act) says that

    “Personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully…and..shall not be processed unless—at least ONE of the conditions in Schedule 2 is met, and…in the case of sensitive personal data, at least one of the conditions in Schedule 3 is also met” (emphasis added)

    What you call “point 1” of schedule 2 is just one of six possible conditions to legitimise processing.

    Interestingly, though, information as to whether someone is a member of a trade union is classed as sensitive personal data under section 2, and processing of that data requires a Schedule 3 condition.

    As I say, you may well be right, but don’t assume that lack of consent means personal data can’t be processed.

  5. uglyfatbloke says:

    Swatantra, it’s certainly true that issues like this will not let UKIP or the BNP in; neither has as much traction in Scotland as the Monster Raving Loonies, but regardless of the size of Joyce’s majority, don’t put money on keeping opt the gnats. This sort of behaviour (like the hallowed institutions of jobs for the boys or being cosy with the Orange Order) is endemic in central and western Scotland Labour and the electorate is less and less willing to ignore practices which are commonplace in Scottish constituencies but would not be tolerated in English ones.
    We have collectively signed up for a belief that Scots vote for the gnats at Holyrood and for Labour at Westminster, but it is not at all clear that this is still the case. There seem to be methodological problems with Scottish opinion polls. Nobody thought that under a system specifically designed (as Jack McConnell told us) to prevent the gnats becoming he largest party, they would attain an outright majority at Holyrood but less than three weeks before the last Holyrood election we were assured of a comfortable Labour victory. If it looks like ‘Dave’ will win a majority in 2015 the gnats will have a field day – assuming that they have lost the referendum, which is, in itself, a good deal less certain than most people like to think. At the moment the Yes campaign is doing well, but does anyone really think that Darling will be able to match Sturgeon in a debate?

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