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By Matthew Barrett
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Norman JesseYesterday in the Commons, the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire, Jesse Norman, led a debate to introduce a bill which would: 

"provide that pay for hours worked on behalf of trade unions by trade union officials during hours when they are paid by an employer should be refunded to the employer by the trade union; and for connected purposes."


Mr Norman argued:

  • "In 2010-11, trade unions received £113 million from public sector organisations. If extended over the lifetime of a Parliament, that would amount to the extraordinary sum of more than half a billion pounds in payments. An estimated 2,840 full-time equivalent public sector employees worked for the trade unions in 2010-11, paid for by taxpayers. That is equivalent to 2,840 public servants whose work has to be done by others: teachers who are not teaching, nurses who are not nursing and social workers who are not assisting their clients. The Department for Work and Pensions alone has 308 full-time equivalent staff working on trade union activities paid for by taxpayers, while Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has 181, to give just two examples. These facts are quite unknown to most people in this country and they deserve much wider publicity."
  • "Many unions do very good work for their members today. I recognise these things and I welcome them. In a similar spirit, the House will know that I am a great supporter of co-ops, mutuals, credit unions and other organisations whose purpose is to empower and support people who are often on very modest incomes. The issue here is one of basic principle: is it appropriate for the taxpayer to subsidise any such large-scale activity by private organisations? If it is, should it be allowed without proper processes of competitive tender and public accountability? My own answer to these questions would be, in general, a resounding no."
  • "[T]axpayer funding creates huge conflicts of interest. Inevitably, some union reps will be tempted to engage in political activity during time funded by the taxpayer. That was the problem with Ms Jane Pilgrim, the former nurse turned union rep at St George’s hospital, Tooting, who denounced the Secretary of State for Health on the basis of a meeting she had never attended. That was politicking pure and simple, but the conflict between political activity and taxpayer funding would be removed if unions were required to refund public money received, as this Bill would demand."
  • "Subsidising the unions with taxpayers’ money is not ultimately in the interests even of their own members. Indeed, it will tend to undermine the services those unions provide. All subsidies distort incentives. This subsidy encourages union leaders to lobby politicians for hand-outs, rather than focus on doing the jobs their members pay them to do."

John Healey, the former Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Health, responded to the debate. The gist of his response was: 

"Many trade union reps rightly receive paid time off from their other work to carry out those duties. Many also devote much of their own time to that work. A recent Government survey showed that reps in the public sector contribute up to 100,000 unpaid hours each week to carry out their duties. Our union reps are the unsung heroes of the long, proud British tradition of volunteering. They are the workplace wing of the Prime Minister’s big society. There should be receptions in Downing street to pay tribute to their work. They support their colleagues and they save employers and the Exchequer millions of pounds each year by reducing the number of employment tribunals and days lost through illness and injury. By improving productivity and training, they help organisations to get through periods of great pressure and great change."

Unfortunately the bill was defeated 211 votes to 132. 

The full debate can be read on Hansard here.

> WATCH: Jesse Norman MP introduces his bill to remove taxpayer funding for full-time union officials

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