Priti Patel is MP for Witham.
In his Conference speech, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude reflected the growing anger over taxpayer subsidies for trade unions by highlighting the scale of facility time in the civil service. He has informed us that Whitehall departments are spending some £30 million on paying the salaries of officials while they are working for their trade union rather than the public. And the 150 full-time representatives he identified are complemented by thousands more who spend varying degrees of the time that taxpayers are paying their salaries supporting the activities of their unions.
But what we need to see is strong and robust action being taken now and not just the promise to consult on reforming this unacceptable practice. I have already tabled parliamentary questions to ask more details about the timescale of the planned consultation, however, there is nothing to stop the Government acting now to shine the light of transparency over facility time.
An immediate step that the Government should take is to require full, detailed and comprehensive records to be kept of what work civil servants are undertaking while they are on facility time. Just as a school governor, local councillor or magistrate would need to give details to their employer of when they need to take reasonable time off to fulfil their public duties, trade union representatives should have to do the same.
In the civil service, many trade union representatives are automatically granted a set number of days off to work for their union. There are equalities representatives, green workplace and environment representatives, health and safety representatives and learning representatives all eligible for time off. This is on top of the trade union representatives who would also be involved in employment disputes and negotiations with employers on pay and conditions.
The numbers and facility time day allocations vary across departments, but, for example, if a trade union representative in the Ministry of Defence is given 25 days off for trade union work there is currently no substantive mechanism in place to ensure that on those days that representative is not indulging in political activities or campaigning. So the Government should immediately end the practice of granting union representatives a set allocation of days off to work for their trade union. This will mean that trade union representatives would have to provide genuine reasons to request time off.
Of course, the unions will complain about any proposals to clamp down on facility time. Just as in the past when facility time is questioned they will claim that there is no abuse happening and they will quote reports claiming that facility time brings benefits. The left wing TUC Stronger Unions website recently recited the usual arguments that the unions make in support of facility time. It can be read here.
But if they are so confident that their time is well spent then they should have no fear in the Government immediately making facility time more transparent. The truth is the trade unions will resist, oppose proposed reforms and take steps to prolong a consultation process because they are afraid that a closer examination of facility time will reveal the extent to which they are abusing taxpayers’ money and orchestrating their anti-cuts and anti-Government campaigning with public resources.
I have already highlighted to ministers examples of facility time abuse among public sector workers, including an official being caught red handed using departmental resources to coordinate a local anti-cuts campaign and produce related campaigning materials. This is on top of the investigation I undertook last year that revealed how trade union officials were encouraging public sector workers to use facility time allocations to attend political demonstrations, which was reported at the time in The Daily Telegraph.
So with coordinated industrial action being planned by the trade unions in a matter of weeks on 30 November, ministers cannot hesitate or pause for any longer. Taxpayers’ deserve to know exactly how their money is being spent and they deserve to see immediate action taken to stop trade unions ripping them off.