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Local authorities to publish details of staff union work

Local authorities will have to publish details on staff who spend time working on union duties rather than frontline services, after new rules came into force.

The new transparency code announced by Eric Pickles means all councils have to publish details on the number of public sector staff who spend some of their working week on union duties and how much that costs the taxpayer.

The local government secretary wants councils to curb the practice of paying staff to work for their union – known as facility time – and use the money saved to protect frontline services and keep council tax down.

Pickles said: “Trade union activities should be paid for by union subscriptions, not bankrolled by the taxpayer. Taxpayers have a right to know how much of their money is being spent on subsidising council workers to act as union officials rather than working on frontline services.

“Greater power for local government must go hand in hand with greater local transparency and local accountability. Therefore it is only right we give Council Tax payers the data they need to play a bigger role in local democracy.

“This government has empowered an army of armchair auditors to hold their council to account, expose waste and ensure town halls are making the sensible savings necessary to keep Council Tax bills down and protect frontline services.”

The new code will force councils to publish full details of the total number of staff who are union officials and the numbers who spend at least half their working week on union business. An estimate of the total amount spent on subsidising union work will also be published.

In response to the new code Unison said that local authority HR staff are dependent union representatives for training and delivering equal pay reviews and that facility time for their union duties is provided for under the ACAS code.

There is also research from the TUC earlier this year that suggests 16% of union reps say less than a quarter of the time they spend on union work is paid for by their employer.

Unison head of local government, Heather Wakefield, said: "Trade union representatives are not funded to work for their unions. Representatives receive facility time, as provided for under the ACAS Code, to engage in industrial relations issues with their councils. HR staff are dependent on Unison for training reps and ensuring they have expertise in such things as job evaluation and health and safety. Without trade unions, councils would not have been able to deliver equal pay reviews.

"Four years of vicious government cuts to local councils and up to 500,000 redundancies have seen union reps acting as go-betweens between councils and employees. Many councils have testified to us that they couldn’t have dealt with the cuts without their union reps. 

"Union reps are often the people who have to convey councils' bad news and deal with the fall-out. Unison’s Welfare Fund is helping our members in local government to deal with the poverty pay and cuts to conditions which are the result of coalition policies, while Learning Reps play a critical role in helping staff to access training – much of it provided by Unison for front-line staff."

The code will also allow taxpayers to scrutinise how councils clamp down on fraud, collect household rubbish and spend parking fine profits.

Ministers have already ended the Audit Commission’s top-down inspection for local government and are replacing it with new local arrangements for auditing councils as well as putting in place rules requiring councillors to register trade union affiliations and dealings.

Government guidance on openness and transparency of a councillor’s personal interests has been revised to include specifically registering union memberships.

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