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Trade Union Officials (Public Funding)

Volume 534: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

The general public could be forgiven for thinking that the funding of trade unions in this country was a relatively simple affair whereby employees who wish to join a union pay their subs and receive the benefits of their membership, and then out of those subs, the unions fund their activities, their offices and their costs, including the cost of the salaries of those full-time officials who spend all day on union activity rather than working on their normal job. Not so, however.

Over the 13 years of the last Labour Government—a Labour Government funded to the tune of £10 million a year by the unions—an insipid, backhanded and frankly dodgy system emerged which ensures that millions of pounds a year of taxpayers’ money is now being used to fund political union activity. In simple terms, the taxpayer is directly funding those organising strikes and chaos, and also indirectly funding the Labour party; and I think that is wrong.

Could the hon. Gentleman describe to the House his interpretation of a trade union official, because that is fundamentally different from what he is stating? There is a difference between a trade union official and a trade union representative.

If the hon. Gentleman had given me more than a minute to get going, I would have come to that point. To answer his question directly, my contention is very simple: any activities that people undertake on behalf of trade unions should be funded by the trade unions and not by the taxpayer.

Some excellent research by the widely respected TaxPayers Alliance in September last year revealed some absolutely startling results. The TPA submitted freedom of information requests to 1,253 public sector organisations, including councils, Government Departments, primary care trusts, foundation trusts, ambulance services, fire services, and all quangos with more than 50 staff. It found the following to be the case. In 2010, trade unions received £85.8 million in total from public sector organisations. That £85 million is made up of £18.3 million in direct payments from public sector organisations—mainly the union modernisation and union learning funds—and an estimated £67.5 million in paid staff time: the subject of this debate. That total is up by 14% from 2008-09, when trade unions received just £76.1 million from public sector organisations. In 2009-10, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills alone gave unions £15 million in direct subs. In 2009-10, total public funding for the trade unions was 20% more than the combined contributions to the Labour party and the Conservative party. Finally, in 2009-10, 2,493 full-time equivalent public sector employees worked for trade unions at taxpayers’ expense.

It may interest Members to know that in Leeds city council a white paper was brought forward by Councillor Alan Lamb, a local small business entrepreneur, who said that it was outrageous that the council was spending £400,000 a year of taxpayers’ money on union officials. Does my hon. Friend believe it was right that that was voted down by Labour councillors who received money to get elected to Leeds city council in the first place? Is that not a personal and prejudicial interest?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I find it astonishing that, in this place and elsewhere, anybody with an interest is required to declare it, unless it is that they are a member of a union that funds them and their local constituency party.

I should declare an interest: I am a proud trade unionist. I am a member of Prospect. Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit were also proud trade unionists. Although I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiment, does he not agree that despite the abuse, there are many moderate trade unions around the country that do a great job in representing people’s interests? A third of trade union members vote Conservative and Conservatives should do all that they can to build bridges with moderate trade unions.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Few would take issue with unions working on behalf of their members in Departments or other public bodies in their own time and with union funding. My question to him and to the House is: why are taxpayers funding that work?

I want to focus on the fact that 2,493 full-time equivalent public sector employees worked for trade unions at the taxpayers’ expense in 2009-10. The TaxPayers Alliance has even broken down those employees by sector: 813 worked in local authorities, 630 in quangos, 611 in Departments, 130 in foundation and acute trusts, 96 in primary care trusts, 43 in NHS mental health trusts and 41 in fire services. My problem with those astonishing figures is simple: why should we spend hard-earned taxpayers’ money on a huge subsidy to the unions? Full-time trade union officials should be paid for by union members, not by the taxpayer.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman gets the opportunity to make this speech in front of the steel workers whom I have the privilege to represent, because the regulations also apply to the private sector. The Government, who are trying to provoke public sector strikes, should be more fearful of small and medium-sized enterprises in the private sector that are not unionised, where the incidents of wild-cat strikes are increasing. The Government need unions on side to deal with the vast amounts of people and to keep the costs of human resources down. Adjournment debates such as this provoke poor industrial relations.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will come to regret that question—I am not even sure what his question was. I simply point out that what goes on in the private sector does not bother me because it involves private money. It is public money that I am talking about.

Trade unions are an important part of society and of Britain’s big society. However, the support that they get from the taxpayer has got way out of hand. Few would take issue with unions working on behalf of their members, but they must do it in their own time and with union funding. Why are the public paying for it?

I will make a little progress.

In the six months to March, the unions had enough money to give almost £5 million of donations to the Labour party, while paying their leaders up to £145,000 a year, which is what the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers boss, Bob Crow, receives. In fact, 38 trade union general secretaries and chief executives receive remuneration of more than £100,000. To name but one, the former joint general secretary of Unite, Derek Simpson, received more than £500,000, including severance pay of £310,000. That is in addition to the fact that the trade unions get £18.3 million—[Interruption.]

Order. Although Members on both sides of the House clearly have strong views on this subject, I remind them that this Adjournment debate is being televised. The behaviour of Members does not always reflect well on them. The hon. Member who has secured this Adjournment debate is entitled to be heard.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that all Members will agree that I am trying to be quite generous in taking interventions, but I have only 15 minutes in which to speak.

In addition to what I said earlier, the trade unions currently get £18.3 million in direct payments from the taxpayer every year through the union modernisation fund and the union learning fund, so they have nearly £20 million in their bank accounts before we factor in any time off at the taxpayer’s expense. Surely they can cover their costs with a £20 million annual grant plus all their subs.

I, too, wish to stress that I support the unions, and I met my union representative today for an hour in relation to certain matters. However, what does my hon. Friend feel the money—the £85 million—could be spent on?

The very simple answer to that is front-line services, not full-time union officials.

The legal background to the matter is that under section 168 in part III of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, a union representative is permitted paid time off for union duties. According to ACAS, those duties relate to anything including the terms and conditions of employment, the physical conditions of workers and matters of trade union membership or non-membership. However, under the same Act, any employee who is a union representative or a member of a recognised trade union is also entitled to unpaid time off to undertake what are called “union activities”, as distinct from duties. As defined by ACAS, union activities can include voting in a union election or attending a meeting regarding union business, but there is no statutory requirement to pay union representatives or members for time spent on union activities. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) is chuntering from a sedentary position, but I cannot hear what he is saying.

Union duties and union activities both fall under the remit of a union representative. Some union representatives are therefore currently being paid for undertaking both activities and duties, and I think that is wrong.

I will give way in a minute.

In addition, union learning representatives are entitled to paid time off for duties including analysing learning or training needs, providing information about learning and training matters, arranging learning or training or promoting the values of learning and training. I ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, who is chuntering, is not all that the job of the human resources department?

In 2004—[Interruption.] Just be quiet. In 2004, the Labour Government made a commitment to boost the number of union learning representatives in the work force to 20,000, a threefold increase. The upshot is that a significant number of union representatives—nearly 2,500 full-time equivalents—are fully paid for by public funds. That means that the trade unions themselves do not bear their own representation costs.

Speaking as somebody who in the early 1980s was a member of the Civil and Public Services Association and received facility time to work as a trade union representative, may I say that where I worked was 90%-plus union organised, and we did not have any strikes? We had a great working relationship in the building, because we could sit down and talk through problems with the management, who enjoyed it. If we started where the hon. Gentleman wants, we would end up where part of my union ended up. In 1984, the CPSA was banned from GCHQ—

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Should Opposition Members declare their interest if they have received union funding in their capacity as Members of this House, or for political campaigns, before making interventions? I would be grateful if you could clarify the rules on that matter.

Mr Wharton, I am sure that everybody is aware of what interests they should be declaring when they participate in any debate. That applies to an Adjournment debate, which is normally the property of the Member who has secured it.

I have forgotten part of the point that the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) made, but I simply say that the unions are entitled to do what they like, and I am sure a lot of what he did was very good work. My point is that they should do it on their own time and it should be paid for by themselves, not by the taxpayer.

I will in just one minute.

The upshot of all the extra money provided to the unions is that a huge amount of money is freed up, whether from the direct grants or the union fees, that the unions can use on political campaigns. If their other costs are paid at the taxpayer’s expense, the unions can use the rest of their income for political activities.

I will not give way.

I would be grateful if the Minister could address the distinction between paid time off for union duties and unpaid time off for union activities. What are the Government doing about union officials who play the system and use their paid time off for political activities?

Further, are the Government planning to mandate public bodies to record more accurately what time is taken off for political activities, which should not be funded by the taxpayer? We know from a written answer from the Department for Communities and Local Government that public bodies do not even bother recording union time accurately.

I will just read this out and then give way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) asked the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

“if he will issue guidance to local authorities on the use of (a) facilities, (b) resources and (c) staffing time for trade union duties and activities.”

The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), replied:

“The TUC have estimated that there are 200,000 union representatives in workplaces across the United Kingdom. Information on the amounts spent on paid time”


“the provision of facilities for trade union officials in the public sector is not widely recorded or transparent…Estimates have suggested that…‘facility time’ is more prevalent in the civil service than the rest of the public sector and the private sector, with civil service departments spending, on average, 0.2% of annual pay…on facility time, compared to 0.14% in the”

whole public sector and just

“0.04% in the private sector...We would actively encourage local authorities to reduce the amount of facility time to the norm of private sector levels.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 126W-27W.]

I hope that as a shop steward I represented my members with integrity, vigour and some success. I never took a single penny piece from the public purse. Does my hon. Friend, who has so commendably introduced this Adjournment debate, agree that unions would advance their cause if they stopped taking public money? If they did that, more people might join them because they would not be seen as extensions of the Labour party.

My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is the point that I was trying to make. My direct question to the Government is this: are they willing to go further and change the 1992 Act, so that trade unions should fund all their activities from their subs? There should be no taxpayer subsidy for those who take time off to spend on union activity.

I will not give way.

That would be many people’s preference. By way of an example, the excellent, independent and non-taxpayer funded campaigning website order-order, or the Guido Fawkes blog, has been highlighting the practice of paying union officials out of the taxpayer purse. Following its campaign, full-time taxpayer-funded trade union officials have become known as “Pilgrims” in the media, after Paul Staines exposed one such full-time union rep named Jane Pilgrim as a full-time trade union organiser working in the NHS for Unison. She came to public attention in 2011 after criticising the Government’s health policies. Despite being billed as a nurse, she was found to be a full-time trade union official, being paid £40,000 by the hospital. She is now under investigation by both St George’s hospital and Unison for running a private health consultancy—called The Pilgrim Way—on the side, creating a conflict of interests.

As the website states:

“There is no justification for the taxpayer paying a lobbying organisation to fight for an unsustainable mess in the interests of a vocal minority group. We don’t pay the arms dealers and the tobacco lobbyists’ staffing bills”.

Let us consider this classic example, which was flagged up by none other than the black country’s Express and Star:

“Judy Foster…is employed as an administration officer by the fire service…But for the past seven years the Labour councillor has been devoting all her working time to Unison, representing 280 fire workers…The fire service has now insisted that Councillor Foster…spends half her…time…on fire service duties and half with the union…But Unison has appealed against the offer and says her union work should be full time and funded entirely by the taxpayer.”

My question is why and on what grounds?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As a proud member of Unite the Union and the chair of the Unite parliamentary group, I am inviting the hon. Gentleman to come along to our group and tell us where we are going wrong. One of the main factors in a trade union official’s job is identifying and preventing health and safety problems in the workplace—not the office, the workplace. Has he factored in any of the figures from the TaxPayers Alliance?

My direct answer to the hon. Gentleman is to ask what he thinks the human resources department or the Health and Safety Executive are for. Public sector organisations have those people, so there is total duplication.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) just asked what has gone wrong, and I will tell him. The Express and Star continued:

“Councillor Foster, who was elected in 1998, already picks up £9,300 in allowances from Dudley Council along with £14,475 as vice chairman of the West Midlands Police Authority. With her £28,000 job, it brings her combined taxpayer-funded salary and allowances to more than £51,000.”

It is no wonder that a YouGov poll in conjunction with the TaxPayers Alliance shows more than half the country would like to see an end to the controversial practice of public sector-funded trade union officials.

I, too, declare an interest as I am the former father of the National Union of Journalists chapel at ITV Yorkshire in Leeds. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) attended the TUC last month in London. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) find it surprising that while representing the union members at ITV Yorkshire in Leeds, the fat cat boss at ITV, who was slashing jobs while taking millions in pay, shares and perks, has now been tasked by the Leader of the Opposition with reforming the Labour party?

I would love to say that I was surprised, but after revising for this debate, I am not surprised by anything anymore.

It is my simple contention that trade unions should pay for representation within public sector organisations through subscriptions. It is unfair that taxpayers should have to shoulder that burden. Unions raise substantial sums through membership subscriptions. For example, subs in the Home Office alone came to more than £2 million in 2009-10. Programmes that give taxpayers’ money to trade unions under the guise of work force improvement should also be scrapped. This includes the union modernisation fund and the union learning fund.

Will the Minister explain what plans the Government have to end full-time trade union work in the public sector? Will he pledge to end full-time representatives who spend 100% of their time on trade union work while being paid their salary by the taxpayer? Will he mandate all public bodies to record accurately time spent on both union duties and activities? Will the Government go one step further? Employment legislation currently requires employers to make available a reasonable amount of time for trade union representatives to carry out their duties. Will he change that so that all time taken off for trade union activities is billed back to the union so that the taxpayer is no longer funding their work?

Finally, given that the unions start the financial year with a £20 million grant from the taxpayer, are the Government looking at reviewing, paring down or abolishing the union modernisation fund and the union learning fund? The taxpayers of this country are currently bankrolling the unions. The equivalent of 2,500 full-time officials are being paid for by the taxpayer, not to do the job of representation but to undertake full-time campaigning activities that should be funded by the unions. This is at a cost of £86 million a year to the taxpayer, with 170,000 days off for union activities and £23 million of perks such as photocopying and phone calls. In an age of austerity, that £86 million is the equivalent of the expenditure of the Office of Fair Trading. Taxpayers expect their money to be spent on public services, not union services. We can no longer afford this Spanish practice, and I call on the Minister to end it.

There was I thinking that this was going to be a quiet conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) in the traditional calm of the Adjournment debate slot, but I was wrong. I congratulate him on securing the debate and the robust way in which he presented his argument.

In the short time I have, I shall try to clarify the Government’s position. First, we need to recognise that employment legislation requires employers to make available a reasonable amount of time off for trade union representatives to carry out their trade union-related duties. There are nine areas of statute where union representatives have rights to paid time off to perform their duties. These cover areas such as representation, informing and consulting, collective redundancy, learning and health and safety. There is a reason for this. There is a clearly defined framework for consultation and negotiation between managers and employees to support good employee relations.

There is a cost to that, however. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has estimated that paid time off for union duties costs employers £400 million annually—0.07% of the total annual pay bill—over half of which, £225 million, fell to public sector employers, with £175 million falling to private sector employers. The Minister for the Cabinet Office and I agree that it is important that the right balance is found between effective representation of trade union members and value for money for the taxpayer.

Of course we understand that there is abuse, but does my hon. Friend accept that there are neutral unions that use facility time constructively? For example, the First Division Association uses facility time to resolve workplace disputes and to help families of Foreign Office staff relocate overseas. That is valuable work and we should be grateful that the FDA does it. I say that only to make the point that not all unions are made up of the Bob Crows described today.

I accept my hon. Friend’s valuable point, but there is clearly a case for reviewing whether we have the right balance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase asked a number of questions that I would like to try to address in the time available, so I am afraid that I will have no time for interventions. He asked about the distinction between paid time off for union duties and unpaid time off for union activities, and asked what the Government were doing about union officials who, in his words, “play the system” and use their paid time off for political activities. The ACAS code of practice on time off for trade union duties and activities provides a detailed framework for those matters. It sets out examples of trade union duties that should attract reasonable paid time off and examples of trade union activities that can attract reasonable unpaid time off. A review of current practice is under way in the civil service, but, anecdotally, we believe that many Departments, if not most, currently give paid time off for such trade union activities where reasonable unpaid time off may be more appropriate.

My hon. Friend then asked whether the Government were planning to mandate public bodies to record more accurately which time is taken off for political activities that should not funded by the taxpayer. He will be aware that the Minister for the Cabinet Office announced at the Conservative party conference that the Government intend to consult on ensuring transparency about union facility time for which Departments—and ultimately the taxpayers—are paying. We will publish information on civil service trade union representatives and the amount of paid time that is spent on union work, as well as the overall percentage of the pay bill for which this accounts.

I said that I would take no more interventions because of the time.

The central point that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase made, about the 1992 Act, is a matter for Ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to answer. However, I assure him that I will make them aware of the points that he made and ask them to write to him directly.

In answer to the list of questions that my hon. Friend asked at the end of his speech—about Government plans to end taxpayer-funded full-time trade union work in the public sector, end full-time representatives and require transparency about the costs of trade union representatives—the Minister for the Cabinet Office also announced at the Conservative party conference that the Government intend to consult the civil service trade unions on the following propositions. We will consult on introducing a cap on the amount of facilities time that Departments can offer, to bring it into line with the statutory requirements. We will consult trade unions on the practice of allowing trade union representatives to spend 100% of their time on trade union work paid for by the civil service.

I will not, out of courtesy to my hon. Friend who secured the debate, as I want to try to answer his questions.

We do not think it reasonable for the civil service to pay people purely to do union work. It is arguably impossible for them to represent the views of the staff in their Department adequately if they are not embedded in its work. In some circumstances, Departments go beyond the requirements of the law by giving paid time off for trade union representatives to take part in internal trade union activities, such as executive group meetings, annual conferences and recruitment meetings. To address that we will consult trade unions about any practice of paying for such trade union activities, with a view instead to enabling employees to take reasonable unpaid leave, as required in statute. In order to ensure transparency about the union facility time for which Departments are paying, we will publish information relating to civil service trade union representatives and the amount of paid time spent on union work, as well as the overall percentage of the pay bill for which this accounts.

As for whether we would go further with employment legislation, I have said that BIS Ministers would respond more fully to that point. However, there are no plans for the law on trade union facility time to be changed specifically for the public sector or otherwise. A reasonable amount of paid time off can offer value for money for the taxpayer. For example, it can minimise working time lost owing to disputes and accidents at work. However, it is important that the Government ensure that public sector employers manage the paid time off that they grant their union representatives effectively to deliver those potential benefits, which are the justification for spending taxpayers’ money.

In answer to the last point that my hon. Friend made, about the grant for the union modernisation fund, there are currently no plans to review the Government’s existing commitment to the union learning fund, as set in “Skills for Sustainable Growth”.

In conclusion, as I have said previously, it is important that employees are represented fairly by union officials. However, in the current financial climate, it is right that the vital balance is found between effective representation of trade union members and value for money for the taxpayer. The measures proposed by the Minister for the Cabinet Office will address the current burden on the taxpayer, while wider transparency measures will ensure that other public sector organisations offer value to the taxpayer. It is essential that we achieve a fair balance on behalf of the taxpayer, and I am happy to keep my hon. Friend updated—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).