“Is the Prime Minister aware that in the last financial year, taxpayers paid over £113 million to trade unions in terms of paid staff time and direct grants?”
Laurence Robertson, 30 November 2011
“I think the idea of full-time trade unionists, working in the public sector on trade union business rather than serving the public, I don’t think that is right and we are going to put that to an end.”
David Cameron, 30 November 2011
This exchange came in Prime Minister’s Questions this week, on the day Mr Cameron condemned strike action by millions of public sector workers.
Tory MP Mr Robertson was quoting research carried out by the rightwing lobby group TaxPayers’ Alliance, which claims the unions get more than £100m a year of public money.
Other ministers have also signalled their intention to put a stop to that. Are the unions really a drain on the public purse, and if so, what can the government do about it?
The TaxPayers’ Alliance isn’t the first group to try to put a figure on how much union activities among public sector workers “cost the taxpayer”.
Union reps have a legal right to get “reasonable” time off work to do certain activities on behalf of their union, without having their pay docked.
These include negotiating with employers over pay and conditions, representing workers in grievance and disciplinary procedures, providing training, doing health and safety work and attending training sessions themselves.
There’s no legal right for a union activist to get paid while he or she takes time off to vote in a strike ballot or attend a political rally.
And as well as the hypothetical cost of this time spent away from the desk, there is a notional benefit to the employer (since we’re talking about the public sector, that’s ultimately taxpayers like you and me).
There would be a lot more expensive employment tribunals, for example, if union reps weren’t there to help negotiate internal settlements, while giving employees extra training tends to improve their productivity.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance put the cost of all this so-called “facilities” time at £80m a year, after totting up all the hours of paid union work logged by 1,300 public bodies and multiplying it by the median gross average public sector salary and benefits package.
They say the other £33m comes from direct grants from various central and local government bodies. Most of that (£21.4m) comes from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills for the Union Learning Fund, an educational project endorsed in glowing terms by Vince Cable and the Tory minister John Hayes.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance hasn’t laid out the hypothetical benefits of employers funding union activity – just the cost.
But in 2006 BIS’s predecessor, the Department of Trade and Industry, commissioned a report that looked at both sides of the equation.
The then Labour government’s researchers actually put the notional cost to the public sector of paid time off for unionists far higher than the TaxPayer’s Alliance does, at £230m to £243m. Include the private sector and that rises to a total of between £408m and £431m to society.
But they also say the benefits that flow from union representation could be anywhere from £476m to £1.1bn. That’s a reflection of savings made from fewer tribunals, sick days, accidents and dismissals, as well as higher productivity.
What is the government going to do about it?
David Cameron’s answer at Prime Minister’s Questions “we are going to put that to an end” was taken by some as an indication that the government is now committed to abolishing the whole system of paid facilities time.
Contrary to some media reports, however, we can confirm that ministers haven’t gone further than an announcement Mr Maude made some time ago to launch a consultation on the issue.
The Cabinet Office told us: “The Government has announced its intention to consult with the Civil Service trade unions shortly on changes to the current practice of paying employees for taking part in trade union activities, including removing the practice of allowing trade union representatives to spend 100 per cent of their time on trade union work paid for by the Civil Service.”
This suggests that paid union work isn’t about to disappear altogether (that would require an Act of Parliament), but the government is planning to tinker with the arrangements, including ending the practice of public sector bodies employing people who work full-time on union duties.
As far as this practice goes, many public authorities admit to it, and many are unrepentant, saying that once you accept your legal responsibility to pay for some union activities, it can make more economic sense to get one person to do all the work instead of spreading it out among a large number of reps.
One local council, Gwynedd, who gave £18,813 to Unison last year, said they did so “in order to ensure that the Council has one point of contact with its largest trade union to negotiate collective agreements with its workforce”, adding that this “has proved to be more financially viable for the Council than negotiating individually with the whole workforce of more than 7,000 members of staff”.
Whether you think this is reasonable or not will probably depend on your political sympathies, but it seems that for the moment, councils will be allowed to go on doing as they please.
Despite angry words on this issue from the Communities and Local Government Minister, Eric Pickles, plans for a shake-up going beyond the civil service and into town halls haven’t gone further than a rather timid vow to “provide assistance and guidance to local councils to help inform their own reviews”.
If anything, the TaxPayers’ Alliance has understated the size of the cost of union work to the taxpayer, but they have also only told one half of the story.
Whether you prefer their figures or the last Labour government’s, it’s not entirely clear how helpful all these massive hypothetical figures are anyway in promoting a real understanding of the situation. Perhaps it’s time for an independent study.
One thing we can confirm though, is that despite fighting talk from Messrs Maude, Cameron and Pickles, there appears to be little appetite in government for an all-out attack on this aspect of union rights.
By Patrick Worrall