Andy Silvester: Why are taxpayers subsidising unions?

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IT’S no secret that money is tight at the Treasury. Thanks to years of financial mismanagement, we’ve piled up £1.3 trillion of debt on the country’s credit card.

Such a stark number should focus the mind, but still the Government insists on wasting taxpayers’ money. This week, the TaxPayers’ Alliance revealed the scandalous £108m subsidy that the Government grants trade unions through paid time off for union duties and direct payments.

That equates to some 2,841 full-time equivalent public sector staff working on trade union duties at taxpayers’ expense; some two and a half times the workforce of HM Treasury. That means 172 staff at HMRC aren’t correcting 5.5 million erroneous tax bills – they’re working for unions. Some 108 staff at the Ministry of Defence are being paid to work for explicitly political unions instead of ensuring troops have the right equipment.

The picture is equally bad at local level. As this newspaper has already reported, East Riding Council gave thousands of pounds to three teaching unions. York Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Scarborough and North East Yorkshire NHS Trust also gave time off equivalent to 18 staff. When the NHS is facing huge and well-reported funding challenges, every hand has to be on the frontline ensuring that the quality of care is as good as it possibly can be.

The story of Jane Pilgrim, a nurse in London who worked full-time as a union representative, was well reported and begged the question of whether a nurse who didn’t do any nursing was, indeed, a nurse. We would suggest not, and therefore she shouldn’t be paid by taxpayers as if she were one.

At a time when Dave Prentis, General Secretary at Unison, is standing up at TUC Conference this week and saying that striking is “the only way to be heard,” it is totally inappropriate for taxpayers’ money to be spent subsidising politically motivated unions. Taxes are supposed to be used to deliver essential services, not disrupt them.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Union leaders at Vauxhall’s plant in Ellesmere Port worked with the company to ensure that the factory stayed open, striking a pay deal in 2012. The upshot is that more than a thousand jobs were saved that, if union bosses there had followed the militant examples of the ever-striking National Union of Teachers or the Public and Commercial Services Union, very well could have been lost.

One can understand the grievances of the unions. Public sector pay has been frozen for a number of years, but if, as a country, we’re to dig ourselves out of our financial hole, we need to rein in spending. Tough choices will have to be made. But the unions should ask themselves whether their opposition now to necessary savings is fair on the next generation. At some point the credit card bill, rapidly closing in on £100,000 per child, will have to be paid back.

Bosses of public sector unions seem all too keen to bury their deficit-denying heads in the sand. If, despite the immorality of leaving our children and grandchildren to clean up our mess, the unions want to fight for more spending and more debt, they’re welcome to. But taxpayers shouldn’t be funding them to do it.

It’s not just unions. Brussels hands out approximately €1bn to non-governmental organisations who “pursue an aim of general European interest, or has an objective forming part of a European Union policy”.

When the TaxPayers’ Alliance began its research into taxpayer-funded unions three years ago, we called on the Government do more to crack down on the practice. Frances Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, has done good work, but this needs to be replicated across the public sector. Whitehall must increase the pressure on local authorities and other public sector bodies to bring down the cost of unions to taxpayers. A good first step is for public sector bodies to actually record how much time staff spend on union duties; some 344 public sector organisations of those we surveyed did not have a clue how much time staff spent away from delivering vital services. That’s unacceptable.

The number of taxpayer-funded activists across the UK fell by approximately 200 last year. It’s a start, but there is much more to be done. It comes down to a simple premise: when taxpayers are paying salaries, they deserve to get a full day’s work.

Andy Silvester is campaign manager at The TaxPayers’ Alliance.