Jonathan Isaby is Political Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Anyone who watched the adjournment debate initiated by Cannock Chase MP Aidan Burley last month on the subject of taxpayer funding of trade unions will be aware that it is a subject which arouses passion in politicians on all sides of the House. So much so, that after that debate Mr Burley reportedly faced a “barrage” of four-lettered abuse from those who disagreed with his take on the issue.
So there will be doubtless be intense interest again today as the TaxPayers’ Alliance publishes new figures (pdf) which show that even more of our cash is being channelled to trade unions as compared with our research this time last year – all based on information provided in response to our Freedom of Information requests.
There are, of course, two ways in which taxpayers’ money is given to trade unions.
Firstly, there are the payments made directly to unions from government departments, agencies, councils and other offshoots of the state. This includes the staggering £21.4 million emanating from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which is given to the TUC for what is known as the Union Learning Fund. That is the same cash sum as reported last year. Likewise, the Department for International Development is also still giving an annual £1.2 million to the TUC.
This year, however, we have identified more than £8 million in direct grants to unions coming from the Skills Funding Agency, which was only established last year and for which no information could be provided about arrangements with its legacy organization, the Learning and Skills Council.
This means that, in total, direct grants totalled £32.9 million for 2010-11.
The even bigger share of taxpayer subsidy for the unions comes via so-called “facility time”: the practice whereby public sector workers can spend time during their normal working hours on union duties – while still being paid by the taxpayer.
Our new figures show that this year the number of full time equivalent public sector staff doing union work on the taxpayers’ time has increased to 2,840 people, which amounts to no less than £80 million of staff time.
That’s a total subsidy from us, the taxpayer, to the unions this year of at least £113 million. I say “at least”, because there are some bodies which acknowledge that some staff do use the facility time but in 257 organisations, no records are being kept of how many staff are involved, how often they are using it and for how long.
Quite simply, this has got to stop. If people want to join a union, then that is their own choice to do so and they should pay their subs to cover their union’s activities. Why should the taxpayer be subsidising them to such a massive degree?
The injustice of the situation becomes all the more stark when you put it in the context of next week’s strike, where so many of the self-same unions which we are subsidising are doing their best to bring the country to a standstill as they walk out for the day, causing chaos and inconvenience for millions.
And that’s not to forget that the taxpayers’ money given to the unions frees up cash in their coffers to be spent on other political activity and donations.
To the Government’s credit, we are hearing encouraging noises from ministers about this unfairness.
Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude MP told the Conservative Party Conference in October that he would be reviewing the facility time allocated to civil servants working in Whitehall departments.
Meanwhile, Local Government Minister Bob Neill has also said that his department would “actively encourage local authorities to reduce the amount of facility time to the norm of private sector levels.”
But now is surely the time to do something about it – and today’s report must surely inject an added sense of urgency into the need for some action.