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Mark Clarke: The government's consultation into trade union Pilgrims is a good start — now more must be done

Mark ClarkeMark Clarke is the Chief Executive of the Trade Union Reform Campaign. He was previously the candidate in Tooting, during which campaign he exposed full-time trade unionist Jane Pilgrim, who gave her name to the trade union “Pilgrims”.

Yesterday those of us who follow the Trade Union movement heaved a sigh of relief that the consultation into ending Trade Union Pilgrims — reps paid by the taxpayer to undertake union duties — was finally published.

This is a campaign which embraces the Conservative movement, and it is about time that the Government moved on it. Guido Fawkes and the Mail on Sunday publicised the infamous Jane Pilgrim, whom I uncovered when campaigning in Tooting. Aidan Burley MP led a feisty adjournment debate which saw him threatened afterwards by Labour’s union bully boys. Jesse Norman MP introduced a ten minute rule bill calling for unions to be charged for the facility time. Priti Patel has been tireless in exposing abuse after abuse. David Cameron personally welcomed the launch of the Trade Union Reform Campaign by myself and over a dozen MPs to campaign on this matter. Finally, and by no means least, ConservativeHome identified this area as one of the keys to achieving an overall majority.

We are now starting a process that we hope will see a permanent end to Union workers being given non-jobs across government which, if this were not enough, are too often further abused topromote a left-wing agenda. This is technically referred to as Trade Union Facilities time. Essentially Union members pay subs so that they are represented at things like disciplinary hearings, but actually what they get is funded by the taxpayer. This in turn enables the subs to be passed to the Labour Party in the form of donations, or used for the fabulous salaries enjoyed by Trade Union bosses.

The consultation itself made some suggestions for improvement which we have below critiqued:

Reporting and benchmarking

The Government want to publish all facilities’ time paid for by us. They also want to establish common practice in how things are reported and how much facility time they should be providing.

We welcome the apparent acceptance of our demand for transparency. However, the Government need to go further. Current ACAS guidelines say it is good practice for formal facility time agreements to be in place. We have yet to find any public body with such formal guidelines. This should be mandated and published. That way management will have their decisions on employing pilgrims open to public scrutiny and the public can hold pilgrims to account.

Limiting 100% facility time representatives

This is a restatement of the position that David Cameron outlined to us at our launch in his capacity as Leader of the Conservative Party. It is most welcome to see Conservative Party policy become Government policy.

However, the government also say they would be content to see people spending 50% of their time on paid union duties.

On this issue, I find myself in agreement with Rachel Reeves MP (Lab, Leeds West), who asked what the practical difference was between one person spending all their time on Union work and two people spending 50% of their time. The cost to the taxpayer is the same and we risk going round in circles. Abolition represents best value for the taxpayer and avoid the risk of the time they take creeping up again once the issue is out of the headlines.

We have come to a sorry state of affairs when a Conservative-led Government is considered to be pushing the envelope by proposing a policy which will see some workers being paid by taxpayers to work half their time for a trade union.

Reviewing paid time off for activities

The existing legislation draws a distinction between trade union “activities” which cannot be funded and “duties” which can be funded. The consultation exposes that a great deal of so called “activities” are going on. There is no legal justification for this and it must stop. The Consultation proposes some sensible ways in which this might be done.

However, we should go further. The trade unions have clearly been abusing their position have have had workers doing trade union activity to which they were not entitled. We wish to see a full audit of such arrangements over the last ten years and a bill given to the respective trade unions for this state employee moonlighting in which they have been apparently complicit. Where individuals have engaged in such activity with no management approval we expect to see the same sort of disclipinary proceedings which any moonlighting worker would expect.

Reduction in overall facility time and ensuring appropriate use of facilities across the Civil Service

This is really the crux of the proposal — to use the benchmarks and transparency to drill down on the amount of paid time taken. A good start would be an interim commitment to using the private sector as a benchmark as this would see facility time fall by 75%.

The Government are also proposing a case by case review of what office space, phones, photocopiers and other facilities are being provided to the Unions.

My simple comment is that Trade Unions have offices and budgets so they should either use their own offices or pay a fair rent on ours. There is no reason why they need these freebies, and I see no duty for us to provide them. The consultation offers a good opportunity for these indirect subsidies to the trade union movement to be exposed.

What’s missing?

  • There is no commitment to end facility time. It is surely immoral to be paying nurses not to nurse and teachers not to teach. We need to have the courage to state plainly that people should do the jobs for which they were employed and not be paid to do a different job for some other organisation.
  • There is no commitment to end the practice which sees union dues docked at source by Government payroll departments. This is a huge indirect subsidy which sees Government acting as a free membership departments for the unions. One leading Government minister described to us that acting on this would be seen by the Union leadership as “Total War”. That shows how dependent they are.
  • The consultation only covers the civil service. However, our research has shown that the real abuse occurs in schools, the NHS and local Government. After all the infamous Jane Pilgrim was supposedly a nurse — except she wasn’t nursing. Eric Pickles is making sterling strides in the DCLG on this subject. But we now need the health and education departments to follow the lead of Pickles and Maude in exposing this practice in the full knowledge that the more the public see, the less they will like.

This is merely the opening salvo. The more that is exposed through this welcome greater transparency, the more we will see pressure building for a proper clampdown in the next Conservative Party manifesto.


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