February 29, 2012
Nick Hurd responds to a back bench MP’s calls for more transparency, accountability and fairness in trade union funding and paid time off for union representatives.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) for recognising that my friend and colleague, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), lives in the real world. Some have doubted that in the past, so it was very helpful of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North to confirm that truth. However, he was entirely wrong to not congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate. I do so, and congratulate her also on how she presented her concerns. She always speaks with a great deal of personal conviction that is often rooted in real experience, and she did so again today.
I was disappointed that so many Labour MPs appeared to come here to frame the debate as the Tories bashing the unions. That is not the language I heard at all. Hon. Member after hon. Member stood up to recognise the valuable role of the unions, as I do too. No one in the Chamber needs a lecture about the value of good industrial relations, or the cost of bad industrial relations, and various Opposition Members spoke powerfully about that. For the avoidance of any doubt, the Government are not proposing any change in statutory entitlement to paid time off to carry out union duties. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for pointing out that that goes with the grain of Lady Thatcher’s position.
In the context of the public sector, there is legitimate concern about the level of contribution from the taxpayer, about the issue of balance, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, and—critically—the issue of transparency, on which my hon. Friends the Members for Witham (Priti Patel), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) spoke strongly. That is what we are debating this morning.
I start with the law. We recognise clearly that the Government have a role in facilitating the conditions for a positive relationship, including balancing the needs of the employer with those of the employee. That is achieved largely through the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. As the title indicates, the Act brought together a variety of legislation that had been introduced and amended during the previous 20 years—a much more turbulent industrial relations climate. The Act covers a wide variety of issues, including recognition of unions in the workplace, the responsibilities of the employer and union representatives and, of course, industrial action. The extent to which the Act addresses trade union funding is in the context of union keeping of financial records, use of membership subscriptions for political purposes and, in the context of this debate, paid time off to carry out essential duties.
Ian Lavery: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Hurd: I will make more progress before taking interventions.
Aside from one or two specific instances, the Act does not distinguish between the public and private sector. The statutory framework recognises that there will be essential business that underpins the union’s formal role and helps to facilitate good industrial relations in the work force. The Act therefore provides for time off to carry out that business. In doing so—this is important to the debate—it distinguishes between duties and activities. Duties are the essential tasks that union reps must carry out. They could include collective bargaining negotiations, formal engagement in statutory consultation on collective redundancies, accompanying an individual to a disciplinary hearing, and can also include health and safety responsibilities. Activities include attending union annual general meetings, executive committees and workplace meetings to discuss the outcome of negotiations.
There is a statutory entitlement to paid time off to carry out union duties, but there is no such entitlement for union activities. However, some employers, including in the public sector, extend paid time off to activities as well. There is no right to time off for trade union activities that consist of industrial action. The amount and frequency of time off, whether paid or unpaid, is for negotiation between the employer and the union and depends on what is reasonable, taking account of all the circumstances. There is no statutory minimum or maximum. That ensures the necessary flexibility to accommodate the wide variety of different work forces and different day-to-day circumstances within those work forces. By that I mean that what is reasonable today may not be reasonable tomorrow if the circumstances have changed.
An ACAS code of conduct underpins the legislation. The code is comprehensive and, among other things, emphasises the importance of clear procedures and record keeping, as well as general considerations in determining what is reasonable. They include the size of the organisation and number of workers, the need to maintain a service to the public, and the need to ensure effective representation and communication with workers with a range of needs.
As I said earlier, at the heart of the framework is the importance of good industrial relations in maintaining an effective organisation. A reasonable amount of paid time off offers value for money for customers of an organisation and users of their services. For example, it can minimise working time lost due to disputes and accidents at work.
Some hon. Members mentioned the union modernisation fund. The latest round of projects is currently winding up and will be completed by early 2012. No further rounds of the UMF are planned, and no further funds will be committed to it. It is important, however, for Government to ensure that public sector employers manage the paid time off they grant their union representatives effectively to deliver the benefits I have mentioned.
I was asked about the proposed consultation in relation to the civil service, which was announced at our party conference. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley), we have already announced that we will be consulting with the civil service trade unions on the following areas: reduction in overall facility time across the civil service; ending or limiting the practice of 100% of civil service employees’ time being spent on trade union duties and activities; ending paid time off for trade union activities, as opposed to duties; and reporting, developing a common system for reporting and monitoring across the civil service. That is the framework of the consultation, which I am assured will start imminently.
We will seek to review and rebalance the amount of paid time off provided to undertake trade union duties. The current level of facilities time offered to trade unions across Departments is very generous, and is certainly significantly more than that allowed in the private sector, or indeed in the wider public sector. While recognising the importance of effective representation in the workplace, we firmly believe that trade union facility time arrangements in the civil service are in urgent need of modernisation to reflect modern working practices. The consultation is focused on the civil service, where my responsibility as a Minister in the Cabinet Office lies, however other colleagues who have responsibility for these matters in the wider public sector have been asked by the Prime Minister to review the position in their sectors.