The TaxPayers’ Alliance have produced a report, which I assisted with, concerning the vast amount of space Trade unions are provided with in public sector buildings – at little of now charge. It amounted to at least 273,753 square feet in 2013-14. This is more than the total floor space of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

Among the details:

  • This amount of office space would have a market value of £27.4 million in London, £7.9 million in Glasgow, and £6.2 million in Cardiff. Despite this, only £307,093 of charges were identified.
  • Councils provided trade unions with at least 162,000 square feet.
  • The NHS provided some 59,999 square feet, significantly more than the White House in Washington DC.
  • Transport for London provided trade unions with 5,685 square feet free of charge, the most of any single public sector organisation.
  • Leicester City Council provided trade unions with 4,812 square feet free of charge, the most of any local authority.

This follows earlier TaxPayers’ Alliance analysis which demonstrated how trade unions received £85 million in paid “facility time” and £23 million in direct payments from public sector bodies in 2012-13.

Taxpayer funding for the trade unions is nothing new. Whether it’s huge amounts of cash handed to the TUC through the “Union Learning Fund” and the “Union Modernisation Fund” or full-time union “Pilgrims”, taxpayers are heavily subsidising unions.

The point that is made by today’s report is that the subsidies go beyond funding the salaries for an army of union officials and cash handouts.

It’s more than six acres of floor space.

In fact the true figure will be even higher. Some organisations did not reply to the FOI requests.

Additionally, some replied that they did not have the measurement whilst others have union officials working in open plan offices rather than separate rooms and so do not record this information.

The Home Office revealed that they employed 400 union officials around the country but did not have central records of their office space. The Department of Work and Pensions do not have a centrally held figure yet their property empire includes 740 Job Centres. The Ministry of Justice does not have a figure for union office space in the 139 prisons in England and Wales.

Given the figures uncovered at far smaller public sector bodies, it seems safe to assume that these large departments also donate a chunk of their expansive property portfolios to unions.

Additionally, Freedom of Information requests were not sent to the 25,000 state schools in the UK – although some will certainly be providing office space to union officials.

Clearly, too many public sector bodies are giving unions far more use of taxpayer funded facilities than they should be.

Government guidance issued last year said that:

“Restrictions should be placed on the use of office facilities for trade union representatives.

“Other than for trade union representatives who are engaged in matters related to Transfer of Undertakings, collective redundancies and health and safety, there is no statutory right for facilities to be made available for union representatives.

“Office facilities should only be used for duties agreed in advance. Clear boundaries should be set on the use of notice boards and the distribution of literature on departmental premises, with a process for managing infringement of such boundaries.

“For example, political material, or literature or content which incites industrial action, should not be produced or distributed on or using taxpayer-funded facilities. Local authorities should consider adopting a similar approach within their workforces and premises. This should include rigorous monitoring and management of how facilities are being used.

“In addition, the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 requires that trade unions must adopt rules providing that all expenditure on political objects (specific types of political activity, as defined by the Act) should come from a separately constituted, ring-fenced political fund, financed by a levy on trade union subscriptions. It consequently follows that such political activity by unions should not be financed by council funds.”

Yet there is a vast property empire provided by the state for trade unions, going far beyond the statutory requirement to allow ad hoc facilities for specific limited purposes. Nor can there be much confidence that there is “rigorous monitoring” to ensure the space is only used for the legally defined purpose. Very seldom was a valuation of the space available.

Sometimes responses would make some assertion that the space was of no value as it would not be feasible to rent out commercially. Most large public sector organisations operate from more than one building. For example a local council will usually have other offices in addition to the main town hall. They should also be seeking to shrink their footprint due to the general need for restraint with the pressure on the public finances. To be offering free office space to the trade unions and casually disregarding the policy of having any consequences in terms of cost suggests a disturbingly cavalier approach to asset management.

Within the NHS, at least 59,999 square feet are taken up with trade union office space. That is larger than many NHS hospitals. It’s enough space for 780 more hospital beds.

Do NHS managers really feel it is morally right to allocate space to unions that is needed for patient care?

The issue is not just about saving money but the role of trade unions in a free society. Should they operate independently or should they be funded as part of the state? Public sector managers should talk to the unions. They should be flexible in allowing staff to spend time working for trade unions – provided those hours they are paid by the unions and not the taxpayer.

That said, there were many positive elements in the responses. Many branches of the public sector were emphatic that they provided not office space to trade union officials. They included examples across different public services and parts of the country and thus illustrate that such provision is unnecessary both a legal and from a practical perspective. There were also a few examples of parts of the public sector where space is charged for.

Proposing to end surreptitious subsidy is not anti-trade union. It is saying that trade unions should operate proudly and independently, rather than as squatters beholden to the barons, rather than their members, for their accommodation.

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