Ex-GCHQ staff win compensation

In January 1999, a group of former intelligence officers sacked 14 years previously for refusing to leave their trade union were offered compensation by the UK government, ending a long-running trade union campaign.

In a written answer to a parliamentary question, the UK foreign secretary, Robin Cook, announced on 12 January 1999 that 14 former intelligence staff at the government's communications headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, dismissed in 1984 for refusing to give up their right to trade union membership, would be offered compensation for lost pension rights.

This move finally brings to an end a major cause célèbre in British industrial relations which began in January 1984 when the then Conservative government, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, announced that GCHQ staff must either resign from their union or apply for a transfer, on the grounds that trade union activity jeopardised the continuity and security of GCHQ services. GCHQ staff who did not comply were dismissed. Those who remained were allowed only to join a staff association approved by the government. The government's action sparked angry trade union protest, and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) upheld a complaint by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) that the UK had violated ILO Convention No. 87 on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise. The dismissals at GCHQ came to symbolise the Thatcher government's hostility to trade unions. Since 1984, annual demonstrations in Cheltenham have been organised by the TUC and the Council of Civil Service Unions to mark the event.

The Labour government elected in May 1997 was committed to reversing its predecessor's policy (UK9704125F) and two weeks after the election the foreign secretary confirmed that the new government was restoring the right of GCHQ employees to join an independent trade union of their choice - a decision warmly welcomed by the TUC.

The foreign secretary's written answer in January 1999 said that his decision to offer the sacked GCHQ staff compensation followed discussions with the Council of Civil Service Unions and the TUC, and "reflect[ed] the principled stand which the 14 trade unionists took, to the point of dismissal, against the attempt to take away their basic trade union rights."

In a statement reacting to the Government's decision, the TUC commented that "this finally closes a sorry chapter in Britain's history. Robin Cook deserves great credit for righting this wrong."

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