Fresh from saving taxpayers another £14.3 billion in Whitehall – an efficiency saving that many thought would be nigh on impossible to force the Civil Service to deliver – Francis Maude is turning his attention to the unions.
The broad aim of his proposed reforms is to end rules which offer trade unions undue help from government bodies, and to close loopholes which make it easier for militant leaders to pursue endless strikes with only limited consent from their members. The two strands currently grabbing headlines are as follows:
- Asking Government departments to end the system of “check-off”, by which taxpayer-funded payroll systems are used to automatically deduct union subs from civil servants’ pay packets. We wouldn’t do this for a political party membership, gym fees or a Netflix subscription, so he’s right in arguing there’s no good reason why the state should lend a helping hand to make it easier for the unions to raise money and build influence.
- Ending the “rolling mandate” principle, under which unions can hold a series of strikes as part of an ongoing dispute with only one strike ballot ever being called. This currently allows union leaders to push campaigns of disruption well beyond what their members may want or support without having to ask them again.
Inevitably, both the Lib Dems and Mark Serwotka are squealing – a helpful alert system which Tory MPs will interpret as signalling that the Government is on the right track.
The question is, do the proposed reforms go far enough?
Dominic Raab, Boris Johnson and others have been campaigning vigorously for a change in the law to require a threshold for a successful strike ballot. Broadly, the idea is that a union should have to receive the support of 50 per cent of its membership, not 50 per cent of those who bother to vote, for a walk-out to be valid.
There are some fears in government that such a system would somehow lend greater legitimacy to strikes that pass the threshold. It’s hard to see the logic of this concern – the point is that illegitimate strikes lacking the support of union members would not go ahead. Those strikes that do pass the threshold would of course be viewed as legitimate and mandated by union members – for the straightforward reason that they would be.
Reforms to reduce the unreasonable closeness between trade unions and state bodies, and to ensure that union members are consulted before each strike action, will be welcome. But there is much more to do on this front – this won’t stop backbench demands for a proper system of majority mandates on strike action.