What subscriptions can be used for
Trade union subscriptions could be used for:
- maintaining the trade union’s offices and facilities
- communicating with members
- publicity material for campaigns
- paying trade union staff
Northern Ireland trade union members are legally exempt from contributing to a trade union’s political fund. If you want the political levy to apply to you, you must ‘contract in’ to the political fund. This applies to all Northern Ireland union members, regardless of where your union's headquarters are.
Paying your subscription
Your trade union will tell you how you can pay your subscription when you join. Most trade union members pay by having their trade union subscriptions deducted from their pay by their employer, a method called the ‘check-off’.
There are several other common methods, including direct debit, cash and cheque.
Paying your subscription by the ‘check-off’
If your employer deducts your trade union subscription from your pay, they will pay this money directly to your trade union on your behalf. There is no legal requirement for your employer to do this.
Your employer can choose to stop deducting trade union subscriptions from their employees’ pay and sending it to the trade union at any time, unless doing so would breach the terms of your employment contract.
By law, your employer can’t deduct trade union subscriptions from your pay without your written permission. Many trade unions will get your consent to pay by check-off when you join, and forward it to your employer – so you may not need to do anything.
Alternatively, your employer may ask you to sign an authorisation.
You can also ask your employer to stop taking money from your pay for check-off deductions at any time. If you wish to do this you must write to your employer asking them to stop making deductions for your trade union subscription. They must then stop making deductions from your pay as soon as it is reasonably possible.
Your employer is responsible for making sure that any check-off deductions they make are lawful. If money for a trade union subscription is being taken from your pay without your consent in writing, or after you have withdrawn your consent in writing, the responsibility rests with your employer and not your trade union.
Check-off and political funds
Some trade unions operate political funds. Members of these trade unions are asked to make a contribution to the trade union’s political fund, as part of their regular subscriptions. This is sometimes called the ‘political levy’.
In Northern Ireland, trade union members are automatically ‘contracted out’ from having to contribute to the political fund of their union. You are not obliged to ‘contract in’.
If you do choose to contract in you must give written notice to the union of your willingness to contribute to that fund. You can withdraw that notice by giving written notice of withdrawal to the union.
A Northern Ireland-headquartered trade union needs a political fund only if it wants to use its funds for what the law defines as ‘political objects’.
‘Political objects’ cover what can broadly be described as electoral or other party political activities. They are defined as the expenditure of money:
- on any contribution to the funds of, or on the payment of any expenses incurred directly or indirectly by, a political party
- on the provision of any service or property for use by or on behalf of any political party
- in connection with the registration of electors, the candidature of any person, the selection of any candidate or the holding of any ballot by the union in connection with any election to a political office (that is the office of member of the Northern Ireland (NI) Assembly, member of Parliament, member of the European Parliament, or member of a district council, or any position within a political party)
- on the maintenance of any holder of a political office (as defined above)
- on the holding of any conference or meeting by or on behalf of a political party or of any other meeting – the main purpose of which is the transaction of business in connection with a political party (including any expenditure incurred in connection with the attendance of delegates or other participants)
- on the production, publication or distribution of any literature, document, film, sound recording or advertisement – the main purpose of which is to persuade people to vote or not to vote for a political party or candidate
Expenditure for any purpose not included on this list, but allowable under the union’s own rules, may be made out of its general, or some other, fund.
Voting for a political fund
If a trade union wishes to establish a political fund, its members must approve a resolution adopting the ‘political objects’ as an object of the union in a secret ballot.
The rules for conducting that ballot must be adopted as rules of the union, and in respect of NI members must be approved by the Certification Officer before the ballot takes place. This provision also applies to unions based elsewhere.
The Certification Officer will give approval only if the political fund ballot rules meet certain requirements. In particular:
- entitlement to vote must be given to every member of the union
- the ballot must be held by post (unless for the purpose of personal safety a member has requested in writing to the union to send a voting paper by other means)
- the ballot must be conducted and supervised by an independent scrutineer, in accordance with the requirements of the relevant law
An information pack outlining the model rules and procedures to be followed by NI-headquartered trade unions and unions based elsewhere in respect of their NI members is available from the Northern Ireland Certification Officer for Trade Unions and Employers' Associations.
If a trade union's members vote in favour of creating a political fund, the trade union can maintain the fund for a period of ten years.
If a trade union wants to continue maintaining the political fund after the end of the ten year period it must hold a further ballot of all its members asking whether they wish the trade union to continue running a political fund. This is sometimes called a 'review ballot'. The rules for the ballot must be approved by the Certification Officer.
If a trade union with a political fund fails to hold a review ballot within ten years of the fund being set up, it’s authority to spend money on political objects automatically lapses at the end of that period.
If your trade union holds a ballot to start a political fund or a review ballot and you think it has broken the rules for the ballot you can complain either to the Certification Officer or the courts.
The political fund rules
A trade union which operates a political fund must have political fund rules. These too have to be approved by the Certification Officer. The trade union’s political fund rules will specify how money is collected for the political fund, and the amount to be paid into the fund by the members who contribute to it.
A trade union must pay for party political activities from its political fund, and must not use money from its other accounts for this purpose.
Once a political fund is established, it is up to the trade union to decide, in-line with its rules, how the money is spent.
Any NI member who believes an unlawful deduction of this nature has taken place may complain to the Certification Officer.
Your trade union must have arrangements in place enabling you to find out how much of your trade union subscription is a contribution to the political fund.
Breaches of political fund rules
A union member can complain about breaches of ‘political fund rules’ to the Certification Officer.
The Certification Officer may make an order requiring the union to remedy any breach of its ‘political fund rules’ which had occurred.
An order made by the Certification Officer may be enforced in the same way as an order of the county court.
NI trade union members must complain to the Certification Officer if the union is headquartered in NI.
If the union is headquartered in GB then a NI member may complain to the Certification Officer if the breach concern rules specific to NI, such as the ‘contracting-in provision’.
However, if the breach relates to overall political fund rules (for example, where a member feels that a union has used its political funds for an inappropriate purpose) a NI member must complain to the GB Certification Officer.
If in doubt about which Certification Officer to complain to, a NI member should contract the Certification Officer for NI and seek clarification.
What to do if you have a problem
If you have a problem with your check-off deductions, try to resolve the matter with your employer and your trade union first.
If your trade union subscriptions are deducted from your pay without your consent, you could make a complaint to an industrial tribunal against your employer. If your complaint is successful the industrial tribunal can order your employer to pay you the value of the unauthorised deductions.