Unions reject GCHQ 'compromise' offer

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BRITAIN last night faced the prospect of international condemnation of its record on civil rights, after talks over a 10-year-old union ban at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the intelligence gathering centre, ended without agreement.

Leaders of five Whitehall unions called for a meeting with the Prime Minister after Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, 'tested the water' with a compromise offer that civil servants' representatives found unacceptable.

In talks at the Cabinet Office, Sir Robin suggested that the staff federation, created in the wake of the ban on unions in 1984, should be given new rights. But Civil Service union leaders believe such measures would not give employees at the centre, based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the right to belong to unions of their choice.

The UN-sponsored International Labour Organisation has threatened to single out Britain for breaching its convention on 'freedom of association' over GCHQ.

Union leaders were unanimous last night in rejecting the offer from Sir Robin. Bill Brett, leader of the IPMS scientists' and specialists' union and the most senior workers' representative at the ILO, said yesterday's talks had 'not gone as well as we would have wished'.

John Sheldon, leader of the NUCPS, which represents middle managers and cypher specialists at GCHQ, said there was nothing in the talks to suggest the Government would allow staff to join an independent national union.

Downing Street said last night that the Prime Minister would consider the request for a meeting.

As Prime Minister in 1984, Baroness Thatcher offered union members among the workforce at GCHQ pounds 1,000 each in compensation for the withdrawal of union rights. Lady Thatcher believed there was a conflict of loyalty between intelligence work and union membership.