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Trade Union Reform (Civil Service)

Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2015

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on trade unions in the civil service.

Trade unions can play an important role in the modern workplace. Some important reforms implemented under the coalition Government, such as changes to the civil service compensation scheme and public sector pensions, were the subject of extended and constructive discussions with a range of public sector trade unions, and I am grateful to union leaders for the forward-looking and thoughtful way in which they have engaged with the need for reform. However, further reforms were needed to how the unions operated within the civil service, and I want to update the House on progress.

Facility time describes the arrangement whereby union officials and representatives have paid time off for trade union duties and activities. Properly controlled and monitored, this can assist with the rapid resolution of local disputes and grievances, but five years ago in the civil service, it was neither controlled nor monitored. We found that thousands of civil servants were paid, sometimes including travel costs and expenses, to attend union conferences. We found that more than 200 civil servants were being paid to work full time on union business. Several had been promoted, one of them twice, without ever doing the job for which they were employed.

The total cost to taxpayers of trade union facility time taken by these officials and the thousands of other part-time representatives was a staggering £36 million a year. Unacceptable at any time, this was particularly intolerable at a time when the coalition Government were making difficult decisions to get the country’s finances back on track. Facility time in the civil service is now rigorously monitored and reported. Now, unless specifically authorised by a Minister, all trade union representatives must spend at least half their time doing the civil service job for which they were employed. Gone is the automatic paid time off to attend seaside union conferences.

Today I can tell the House that the cost of trade union facility time has dropped by nearly 75%, from £36 million in 2011 to just over £10 million now, saving taxpayers £26 million a year. The cost has fallen from 0.26% of pay bill to just 0.07% for the latest rolling year to date—well below the benchmark we set of 0.1%. I can also reveal that the number of full-time trade union officials on the public’s payroll has fallen from 200 in 2011 to just eight today. With the civil service now over one fifth smaller—like for like—than it was in 2010, I expect the overall number of representatives to continue to fall over the coming years.

Check-off is the practice where the employer collects trade union subscriptions from payroll on behalf of the union, and decisions on whether this should continue are delegated to individual Departments. The civil service management code requires Departments to recover the cost of check-off from the unions, which only two Departments were doing, so the head of the civil service has written to permanent secretaries of Departments where check-off remains to remind them of this obligation. So far, eight Departments have served notice to the trade unions that they intend to remove check-off: Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for International Development, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Others have started the consultation process to allow this to happen. I believe that this change will enable unions to build a much more direct relationship with their members, without the need for the relationship to be intermediated by the employer.

Taken together, these reforms have made a considerable contribution to modernising Departments’ relationships with their trade unions—reforms that were long overdue—and I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement—it is good to see that at least this member of the Cabinet is not ducking difficult questions in Parliament today.

It is election time, so we have a Tory Minister coming to the House as part of a pre-election union-bashing exercise. There is absolutely nothing new in this statement, so one wonders what his motives are. The Government have a clear strategy towards public servants up and down the country: “The Government do not value the work you do and are hellbent on disfranchising you and weakening your rights at work.” Government Members, especially those in marginal seats, should be worried about the impact this is having on public sector voters in their constituencies.

One has to ask whether this so-called statement is just a smokescreen for a Prime Minister running scared of a debate about the future of our country and a Chancellor whose economic plans threaten £70 billion of cuts that would take us back to a time before there was even an NHS. This Minister is a reasonable man, and I support what the Government are doing on many aspects of civil service reform, but I will not support the steps he has taken under the name of trade union reform, which have resulted in souring relations, low staff morale and unnecessary industrial action, and have scuppered some of his otherwise valiant attempts to change how government is run.

Facility time is an important resource not just for union members and employees but for the employer and, in this case, the taxpayer. Labour is clear that facility time is not political time; where well deployed and not abused, it reduces many human resources costs to a company, such as by reducing the number of disputes going to an employment tribunal, recruitment costs and the number of days off sick and workplace injuries. That is why some of the biggest companies, such as Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover, support facility time—because it is part of an effective HR strategy and a productive workforce.

Of course, we support genuine attempts to eradicate abuse, but the Government’s rhetoric tells a different story—one that is more about their political ideology than good accounting. Check-off is another example. Many major private employers use it: in construction, there is Balfour Beatty; in pharmaceuticals, there is AstraZeneca; in manufacturing, there is BAE Systems, GKN and Rolls-Royce. All of these private sector companies recognise its benefits, but unsurprisingly this Conservative-led Government have done everything they can to end check-off. Given that the cost of check-off is relatively low and that most unions are happy to pay the cost of administering it themselves, it is clear that this is another stage in the long campaign to weaken trade unions and disfranchise their members. Would it not have been better to give the trade unions and their tens of thousands of members across government proper and ample time to move members on to a direct debit system, which I am sure we all agree is more sustainable in the long-term? That is what we will do, and I want to put it on record that when we win in May, we will ensure that this is made possible across all Departments.

The Minister has come to this House today with his Lynton Crosby route 1 election strategy: bash the unions and duck the leaders’ debates. Hard-pressed public sector workers will see this for what it is, and they know that they deserve better than this.

It is lovely to see the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) taking time off from her pressing duties of holding the Labour party’s election campaign together. It is good to have her here. I thank her for her gracious support for most of what we do. It is important to stress that much of what we have done on civil service reform has commanded widespread support across the political spectrum. I am grateful to her and her predecessors for the constructive way in which they have done that—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) makes a comment that is rather less graceful than his colleague.

It is very hard to tell.

Let me deal head on with the hon. Lady’s points. She says that this is an attack on public servants, but it is absolutely the contrary. She talks as if this is an attack on union facility time. It is not. I said in my statement—she might have listened to it; she had it in advance—that I supported the use of facility time. Facility time for trade union duties is protected by law. Trade union duties—the resolution of disputes and grievances—are important, and the presence of trade union officials and representatives within the workplace can be helpful in achieving that. What we are concerned with is the abuse and the use of paid time off in facility time for large numbers of civil servants to attend their union conferences with their expenses paid by the public. That is not acceptable. That is what we have called time on.

I know that the hon. Lady and her colleagues do not like it, and we know what the reason is. The reason is perfectly simple: it is that the Labour party is paid for and puppet-mastered by the trade unions. She should come clean and say that the Labour party election campaign that she is trying to hold together and conduct is paid for by exactly the trade union leaders who have no doubt written the script that she has read out to the House today.

The practices that the Minister described as seeing on his arrival at the Cabinet Office in 2010 will have come as a complete shock to my constituents. May I tell him that my constituents will very much support the steps he has taken to ensure fair use of union time by officials?

My hon. Friend is completely right. To be honest, it was a complete shock to us to see how much this system had been abused, and how little effort was made by our predecessors to count and control the costs of what was happening. Opposition Members say that this is an attack on public servants, but the truth is that public servants would much rather have this money spent on public services, which is their vocation, than on supporting trade union officials at the taxpayers’ expense.

We are going to have to develop some criteria for providing statements to this House, because this is a complete waste of the House’s time. The Minister needs to get up to speed: the Public and Commercial Services Union has never been affiliated to the Labour party and has never funded it, so he can drop these accusations. This is all about union busting, so I want to know what investigation took place into the union-busting strategy within HMRC, where leaked reports said that trade unionists were to be victimised and the union to be broken within that department. What did the right hon. Gentleman do about that?

First, I never said that about the PCS. I know it is not affiliated. The PCS dislikes the Labour party nearly as much as it dislikes us. Secondly, when it comes to attacks on public servants, the hon. Gentleman’s attack on hard-working public servants in HMRC—the management of HMRC, those senior hard-working officials who have decided in conducting their vocation of public service that check-off should be discontinued—is disgraceful.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that unions can perform an important role in the workplace, but that the creation of a so-called super union would damage the perception of the independence of civil servants and that many would wish not to join such a union?

I saw a report this morning suggesting that there was a plan, not yet divulged to the public, for the PCS to be swallowed up by Unite. Civil service political impartiality is an essential part of the way in which our system of government works. For the largest civil service union to be controlled by the same puppet-master and paymaster that controls Labour would be a matter—[Interruption]—of very considerable concern—

Order. When I say the Minister is finished, let it be clear. It is no good him sitting there shrugging. When I say he is finished, he is finished. It is important not to waste the time of the House. It is beneath the level of a Minister.

Government Departments offer a range of check-off services to their employees, including deductions for membership fees, for private sporting clubs, for private clubs more generally and even for private medical schemes. What is it that makes the payments of trade union dues exceptional? Why would any employer want to withdraw this from its own employees?

As the right hon. Gentleman, who is knowledgeable on this subject, knows, many employers have taken exactly this step. Many unions have sought to withdraw from check-off arrangements themselves, because they take the view that a modern union in a modern workplace should have a direct relationship with their members, not intermediated by the employer. Check-off dates from an era when many people did not have bank accounts and direct debit did not exist. It exists now, and many unions take the view, and indeed the PCS has said, that the easiest way to collect their dues is through direct debit.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the TaxPayers Alliance on its important work which shows that £100 million of public money is wasted on facility time? Does he share my concern that a PCS-Unite merger would undermine our democracy and mean that the Labour party would be even more bought by the unions than it is today?

I make the point again that the perception of political impartiality in the civil service is fundamental to our system of government. That should not be imperilled in any way. My hon. Friend is completely right to draw attention to the much wider scale of facility time and the cost borne by the taxpayer—money that would be better spent in the delivery of front-line public services on which vulnerable people depend. That is something that all public authorities should be looking at.

Is the Minister aware that all he needed to say today was quite simple: Tory Ministers are continuing their spite and vendetta against trade unions? This is nothing different from what has occurred previously.

That was not really a question, Mr Speaker, but by way of response, most public servants and most members of the public and the people who use public services would prefer the money to be spent on the delivery of public services, not on the delivery of trade union salaries.

This statement is called “Trade Union Reform (Civil Service)”, so will the Minister correct himself and the record and confirm that none of the civil service unions is affiliated to the Labour party or pays towards it? Rolls-Royce, Tesco, Virgin Media, Odeon Cinemas, Jaguar Land Rover —some of our biggest and best British companies—work with trade unions, recognise trade unions, and offer check- off to trade union members and facility time to their representatives. Why are the Government not dealing with their staff and unions in the same decent, modern way?

I support the use of trade union time, but it must be controlled and monitored, and it must not be abused. I also support the presence of trade unions in the workplace, and I personally have worked very closely with them. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury and I spent 12 months in productive discussions with the TUC and public sector trade unions when we were considering public sector pension reform, and we made a number of changes to reflect the concerns of the unions that were prepared to engage with us. I need no lectures about the importance of engagement with the unions, but the arrangements should be controlled and modernised, and the right way for that to be done is the way that I have described.

I have seriously tried to understand the rationale for what the Minister has announced. It appears that the management were not controlling the check-off arrangements properly, because the unions would have paid the costs willingly, but those costs were not paid. It also appears that the management could have monitored the difference between facility time for activities and facility time for duties, but did not do so. That suggests a failure in senior management. As for attendance at conferences, it seems that trade unions will still be paid if they hold their annual conferences in Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham or Liverpool, because the Minister mentioned only seaside conferences. The truth is that this is nothing more than another attempt to find the bogeyman whom the Conservatives have tried to find for the last five years. They want another Arthur Scargill so that they can try to rattle a can in the next few weeks. That is what this is all about.

Given that Opposition Members apparently do not think the statement should have been made, they are finding plenty to say about it. Indeed, we are having a good and productive debate. It is important for the issues to be debated, because they do matter.

As I said, I take my relationship with trade unions very seriously. I continue to chair the public services forum which was set up under the last Government. We engage with each other very fully, and I am happy to say that I have warm relationships with a number of trade union leaders.

I am probably the only Member of Parliament who is a former branch secretary of the First Division Association, and I think that the Minister’s attempt to divide junior from senior officials is wholly misconceived. It reminds me of the time when Mrs Thatcher kicked the trade unions out of GCHQ.

Why has the Minister chosen this moment to crack down on check-off? Has he done so because the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast a 1 million reduction in the number of public servants, and he wants to weaken the unions before that happens?

The hon. Lady’s mind is more elaborate than mine. We have looked at this in a perfectly sensible, straightforward way. We want trade unions in the civil service—and in this context I am talking only about the civil service—to engage in a sensible, modern fashion, and we want public money to be deployed in the delivery of public services rather than the delivery of trade union officials’ salaries.

The Minister said that Departments were entitled to recover the costs of check-off from the unions, and rattled off a list of Departments that were ending check-off. Have any of those Departments made any attempt to negotiate with the unions on the costs of check-off, or does the Minister simply want to get rid of check-off altogether?

For many years, the civil service management code has obliged Departments to recover the costs of check-off from the unions, but only two have been doing so, namely the Ministry of Defence and HMRC. Check-off remains in place in a number of Departments, and the head of the civil service has very properly written to their permanent secretaries telling them that they should rectify the position.