It is a routine arrangement in the public sector for employers to collect the membership subscriptions for trade unions without charging for this service. HSBC charge businesses 18p per transaction, for automated credits (i.e. incoming direct debits). Across 12 months (monthly sub) this would be £2.16 + VAT per customer.

62.4% of all union members are public sector employees. There are a total of 6.5 million trade union members so that equals around four million public sector trade union members. Therefore, the cost of collecting trade union subscriptions in the public sector could be in the region of £9 million. In fact I think it is worth rather more to the unions – as I have written earlier the collection of subs via this official mechanism may leave some employees with the impression that they are obliged to be union members – at the very least it is something their employer expects and encourages.

Today may be a suitable occasion for Council leaders to reflect whether the National Union of Teachers, for example, provide sufficient benefit for the country to justify this cosy arrangement, which gives the an effective subsidy – in addition to that already identified by the Taxpayers Alliance over "facility time."

The Department for Communities and Local Government are setting an example by reviewing their own arrangements. They are looking at either charging unions for te service or (I think a healthier arrangements) leaving unions to collect their own subs.

Tory MP Aidan Burley, a former colleague of mine on Hammersmith and Fulham Council,has asked a couple of rather insightful Parliamentary Questions on the matter:

Local Government: Trade Unions

Mr Burley: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what his policy is on the use of check-off arrangements by local authorities for the payment of (a) trade union subscriptions and (b) the political levy; whether local authorities are required to provide such a facility; and whether the cost to local authorities of administering such arrangements may be recovered from trade unions. 

Robert Neill: Employment decisions are a matter for local determination by councils as employers. At a time when all councils need to make sensible savings to protect their front line services, they should ensure that arrangements for collecting union subscriptions do not burden taxpayers. They should also consider making an appropriate local administration charge to trade union branches for providing this service or simply exercise their right not to offer this facility.

In due course, the Cabinet Office will be producing a policy paper on the use of facility time and how it can be reformed and reduced within the civil service. Subsequently, the Department for Communities and Local Government will provide guidance to local councils to help inform their own reviews on this matter.

Trade Unions

Mr Burley: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

(1) which trades unions receive (a) subscription and (b) political levy payments from his Department using a check-off arrangement; and whether his Department charges trades unions an administration fee for collecting trade unions subscriptions through its payroll; 

(2) how many staff of his Department pay their trade union subscriptions to each union recognised by his Department using a check-off arrangement; and how many such payments involved payment of the political levy in the latest period for which figures are available. 

Robert Neill: Prospect, PCS and the FDA trade unions receive subscription fees from the Department for Communities and Local Government using check-off arrangements. The following table shows the number of staff paid through these arrangements in October 2011. The Department does not charge an administration fee for collecting subscriptions through its payroll.
FDA             4
Prospect     13
PCS         771

As the payment of the levy is a matter between the individual and the trade union, this information is not held by the Department. As I noted in my answer of 9 September 2011, Official Report, column 867W, there is a lack of transparency on the political levy, as some trade unions fail to inform their members of the fact that they are being charged the levy when they join, and they make no reference of the right to opt-out on membership forms. As the deposited paper associated with that answer illustrates, these membership forms also act as the employee's authorisation for the union subscription to be deducted from the departmental payroll.

However, details of which trade unions have political funds and collect a political levy are publicly listed in the annual returns on the Certification Officer website:

Check-off is a voluntary arrangement, and employers have no statutory duty either to operate it at all, or to continue to do so have started. Employers may also choose to charge the union for the administration involved in providing the service of collection the union subscriptions.

Ministers are open to representations on whether an administration fee should be charged for collection of trade union subscriptions through the departmental payroll, or whether the check-off arrangements should operate at all, as opposed to the administration effectively being subsidised by taxpayers.