The Education Secretary Michael Gove is currently consulting on restricting the amount of time teachers spend working as trade union officials while their salaries are still being met by the taxpayer. Often union officials will be employed full time at public expense yet never setting foot in a classroom.
The consultation paper says:
We believe that taxpayer subsidy of trade union activity through paid facility time should be more transparent and efficient. We believe that taxpayers expect to fund teachers to teach, and trade union representatives should retain a strong link to the classroom. This call for evidence document sets out our proposals and asks questions about how you think facility time should operate. We want to be clear that this call for evidence does not cover how trade unions spend the funds they generate from membership fees, which is a matter for the trade unions themselves.
Under the current law paid time off is allowed for time spent negotiating with employers and representing union members at hearings – but it is not supposed to be spent on political campaigning, going to conferences and demos or organising strikes. But there is a lack of accountability over how these taxpayer funded union reps spend their time:
We believe that trade union representatives funded by taxpayers should regularly account for how their facility time is spent to the management of their school and/or their employer, as the Code of Practice advises. Some employers have set up systems to do this, for example a group of schools in one area has formed a co-operative to manage services: their ‘facility time calculator’ requires union representatives to produce descriptive invoices of facility time taken.
Nor is there much consistency over the amount of time taken off for union activities in different parts of the country:
While some excellent progress has been made, spending on facility time in schools and local authorities currently varies widely. In one area there are approximately 10 full time equivalent classroom teacher union representatives who received total taxpayer funding of nearly £400,000 in 2011-12. A larger local authority, with almost 10,000 more school places, spent less than £120,000 in the same year on classroom teacher union representatives.
Within the public sector overall facility time costs amount to 0.14 per cent of the annual pay bill – approximately £240 million last year) and 0.04 per cent in the private sector. The DFE consultation notes that the Department for Communities and Local Government has recommended that the private sector benchmark be adopted by local government to maximise savings.
Another argument for scaling back the subsidy is that if the union reps are full time then they become out of touch:
We believe that for a union representative to function effectively and represent the views of employees, it is necessary for them to be actively involved in their day to day jobs. Several local authorities and other school employers have already reduced the number of full time representatives working in their areas and focused their spending on a small number of part time representatives, for example one local authority has cut down from full time union representatives to one day a week per representative.
This is welcome progress. A more straightforward approach would be to change the law so that all time spend on trade union work was funded by the trade unions. That would then avoid the need for all the monitoring to check what was or wasn’t within the rules.
Another matter which is not covered is the scandal of schools using space on their premises intended for educating pupils to provide free, or heavily subsidised, office space to union officials. That is a quite unacceptable use of state property and should be prohibited.