GCHQ ban on unions deplored by UN agency

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In a move normally reserved for Third World countries, the UN's labour agency yesterday urged the British government to accept a mission to arbitrate over the union ban at the GCHQ intelligence centre.

At a highly charged annual conference, the International Labour Organisation issued a statement "deeply regretting and deploring" ministers' failure to solve the problem.

But the Government said last night it remained convinced that the 11- year-old ban on national union membership was "essential in order to safeguard national security".

While the annual meeting of the ILO in Geneva heavily criticised the behaviour of the Government, it fell short of naming Britain in a "special paragraph" of the conference report. Such an insertion is invariably used against military dictatorships.

Union representatives yesterday declared their satisfaction with the outcome and urged ministers to negotiate.

Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, said he was pleased the ILO did not vote to censure Britain. "It was right to resist what was a politically inspired campaign by the TUC designed to manipulate the ILO for partisan purposes."

British government representatives at the meeting denied ministers had threatened to pull out of the ILO if the paragraph was inserted.

John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, said Mr Portillo's remarks were at variance with the attitude taken by his departmental representatives in Geneva. The ILO envisages sending a group of experts to Britain to see if there is a way through the dispute. A previous attempt by British union leaders to find a solution failed at the end of 1993.

In 1984 Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, decided to ban unions at the Cheltenham based "listening post" after their members were involved in industrial action. Unions rejected ministerial assertions that key intelligence work was disrupted.

Since then the issue has been raised regularly at the annual meeting of the ILO, which is attended by government, employer and workers' representatives from 173 member countries. The organisation'scommittee of experts has consistently warned that the ban contravened Convention 87 to which the UK is a signatory.

Harriet Harman, Labour's employment spokeswoman, said: "The ILO committee has given ministers one last chance and I hope the they will now see sense." Tony Blair, the Labour leader, last week repeated his pledge that the first act of an incoming Labour government would be to lift the ban on unions at Cheltenham.