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Trade Union Officials

Volume 537: debated on Monday 5 December 2011

4. If he will take steps to end the practice of employing publicly funded full-time trade union officials in local government. (84497)

6. If he will take steps to end the practice of employing publicly funded full-time trade union officials in local government. (84499)

18. If he will take steps to end the practice of employing publicly funded full-time trade union officials in local government. (84512)

All local authorities need to make sensible savings to protect front-line services and keep council tax down. Councils should be reviewing the merits of publicly funded full-time union officials. Those are non-jobs on the rates and it is wrong that council tax should be used to subsidise trade union activity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Given that union leaders and officials are full-time politicians in all but name who receive more than £113 million of taxpayer funding each year, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for the implementation of a register of interests for union leaders, thereby subjecting them to the same level of public scrutiny as all other politicians?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I was shocked to hear what he said, because I was not aware that trade union officials did not have a register. I would have thought that in this age of transparency, we should urge them to do that. I know that Opposition Front Benchers are keen for everybody else to have such restrictions. Why should trade union bosses not be a little more open about their funding and their interests?

Redditch borough council recently told the TaxPayers Alliance, in response to a question, that one person in Redditch was given “reasonable time required” to carry out union duties. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that Redditch taxpayers are unable to conclude what may or may not be reasonable?

I am very pro-union and I think that it is important that we do give time off. However, I am not entirely sure that ratepayers should pay for that. It should legitimately be paid for through trade union activities. In that way, we could all recognise the enormous value that trade unions give to this country.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, I will not be shouted down. According to the TaxPayers Alliance, Staffordshire county council, which covers my constituency, subsidised the unions to the tune of £281,000 or the equivalent of 10 full-time members of staff. Does the Secretary of State agree that such subsidies should be subject to a council vote and that any councillor whose election campaign is bankrolled by the unions should have to declare an interest?

This is money that is being taken away from the front line when times are tough. I am shocked by the amount of money that Staffordshire is spending. On whether Labour councillors who are bankrolled by the unions should declare an interest, it is very clear that the Localism Act 2011 abolished the Standards Board but created a new criminal offence of not declaring interests. There is a reasonable case for saying that if one is bankrolled by the unions, it is a prejudicial issue and the sensible thing would be to withdraw from the proceedings.

Will the Secretary of State disown this attack on the most basic and benign feature of trade union work—day-to-day support for staff from their colleagues who volunteer to act as union reps? These are the unsung heroes of Britain’s volunteering tradition, the workplace wing of the Prime Minister’s big society. They save employers and the Exchequer millions of pounds by cutting the number of tribunal cases, cutting the number of days lost through illness and improving the take-up of training. [Interruption.]

I think I got most of what the right hon. Gentleman said. I am very pro-trade union, and he is absolutely right. He is a very senior Member, and he puts his finger on the nub of the matter. They are volunteers, and the nature of a volunteer is that they are not paid by the council. I am very much in favour of all facilities being available to trade union officials, but I do not want them to be paid for on the rates.

Does the pro-union Secretary of State recognise the hard work carried out by many trade union reps in the workplace on health and safety and many other things? That saves industry and the taxpayer millions and millions of pounds.

Of course I recognise that. My great-grandfather was one of the people who helped found the trade union movement. The most important thing that the hon. Gentleman needs to understand is that there is more facility time in the public sector than in the private sector, and there are fewer strikes in the private sector than in the public sector.

There is a legal right to time off for trade union duties. Are we not seeing an outright attack on trade unionism? The Secretary of State well knows, because he has had the opportunity to negotiate with unions in his distinguished career in local government, that trade unions are a force for good. I wonder whether his coalition partners support him in his endeavour.

Indeed, I have had many opportunities to negotiate with trade unions, and I have enjoyed every single moment. However, the important point to consider is what is voluntary and what it is legitimate for the taxpayer to pay for. For example, my Department and a number of local government bodies collect the trade union fees, and they are paid in directly. Where there is a political levy, we are putting public money into the coffers of the Labour party. If it were going to the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats, that would be regarded as something of a scandal.