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Reduce union facilities time, councils told

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The Department for Communities & Local Government has issued official advice to councils urging them to cut back on union facilities time

Unions have branded the document and its foreword from communities secretary Eric Pickles as an ‘unjustified attack’ and an ‘insult’ to the union members who volunteered to represent their colleagues.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles has criticised the position of trade unions in the public sector on a number of occasions in the past, but his department has set out detailed guidance to reduce the costs of unions as a follow up to the controversial ’50 ways to save’ document issued two months ago.

In his foreword, Mr Pickles said there was inadequate control of “taxpayer funding” for unions.

“Reducing such public subsidies to trade unions is a practical way that councils can save money, to keep council tax down and protect frontline services for local residents – including union members themselves.

“Trade union activities and campaigning in local councils should be funded by members’ subscriptions, not bankrolled by the taxpayer.”

Union leaders have reacted angrily at Mr Pickles’ comments and the guidance document, which comes at a time when national pay negotiations are reaching a conclusion and as many councils announce job losses as budgets are set.

Brian Strutton, GMB National Secretary for Public Services, said Mr Pickles “doesn’t have a clue what trade union representatives do” and accused him of “lashing out because the Tories are losing the plot”.

He added: “In local authorities these trade union reps are highly valued by employers for the work they do yet the paid time off they get from their job is less than the recent cabinet office guidance issued by Francis Maude recommends. These trade union workplace representatives are being insulted by this unjustified attack.

“All the reps we have do a huge amount unpaid in their own time as well.” He added: “It is a valuable and necessary role and what these representatives do should be applauded not derided.”

Employers have also indicated they value the work done by union representatives.

Richard Crouch, vice president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association and head of human resources and organisational development at Somerset CC, said he agreed with the principle of being careful with taxpayers money but said Mr Pickles was behind the times.

“He is assuming that the spend in local government is very high and I don’t think it is, he said.

“The horse has already bolted on this,” he added. “The majority of councils have already reviewed arrangements because the cuts have been so tough we have turned over every stone. Certainly Somerset has reviewed it at least twice and is about to do it for a third time.”

Mr Crouch said some councils were looking to increase, not decrease, the number of union representatives because they provided “helpful” support during periods of organisational change.

“A number of councils are are looking to increase their shop stewards on the learning and development side as we move to the next stage of changes to the workforce,” he said, as they could help with the retraining and redeployment of staff. “Service reviews are going on at every level and that clearly impacts on staff and we need shop steward support,” he added.

The issuing of guidance from DCLG follows a Cabinet Office review of trade union facilities time within the civil service and after Mr Pickles promised over a year ago to “call time” on facilities time in local government. At the time employers praised the role of union representatives at a time of job cuts and significant change and employment lawyers questioned how much Mr Pickles could force councils to do to change their policies.

Guidance to councils

  • Councils should save taxpayers’ money by significantly scaling back the cost of trade union facility time.
  • There should be full transparency on the level of facility time given to trade unions.
  • Employees should not be spending all or the majority of their working hours on trade union duties.
  • Time off for trade union activities should be unpaid.
  • The amount of facility time should be reduced and should be limited to a set percentage of an organisation’s pay bill.
  • Councils should adopt private sector levels of facility time.
  • Restrictions should be placed on the use of office facilities for trade union representatives.
  • Political material, or material which incites industrial action, should not be produced or distributed on or using taxpayer-funded facilities.
  • Councils should charge for collecting union subscriptions, or end the practice completely.
  • Councillors should declare payments and sponsorship from trade unions and ensure there is no conflict of interest.
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