Trade union ‘facility time’ under review

Workplace trade union representatives in the UK are granted paid time off, known as ‘facility time’, to carry out trade union duties. In 2012, the government will consult over cutting the amount of facility time granted to representatives in the civil service, as well as reviewing the provision of such paid time off for union representatives right across the public sector. Unions say the move is an attack on trade unions and argue that there is a benefit to employers as well as a cost.

Facility time

The UK’s Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 obliges employers to grant reasonable paid time off work for employees who are representatives of recognised trade unions. This time is for them to carry out certain duties, notably collective bargaining, representation of members, gathering information, and consulting on collective redundancies and business transfers.

Union learning representatives (UK0402103F) and health and safety representatives also have a statutory right to paid time off to perform their duties.

All representatives are also entitled to paid time off for training related to their roles.

An official code of practice, from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), sets out practical guidelines for employers on implementing these entitlements.

The legislation provides for paid time off for trade union duties, but not for union activities, which would include attending meetings at the workplace or with external union officials, participating in union policy- or decision-making bodies, or voting in union elections. There is only a statutory right to reasonable unpaid time off for some of these activities.

In practice, usually based on an agreement with the union concerned, many employers grant workplace union representatives additional paid time off, generally for internal union activities. There are estimated to be around 200,000 such representatives in the UK claiming what is known as ‘facility time’.

The evidence available indicates that facility time arrangements are more common in the public sector, and the amount of facility time granted greater, than in the private sector, reflecting the public sector’s considerably higher union membership and collective bargaining coverage.

Consultation on civil service arrangements

In October 2011, Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, announced a consultation on reducing current facility time arrangements in the civil service, on the grounds that they constitute excessive taxpayer support for unions. He said that civil service facility time costs £30 million a year and that around 150 civil servants are full-time union officials whose wages are paid by the state.

In late February 2012, the government stated that the consultation was imminent and would focus on:

  • cutting overall facility time across the civil service;
  • ending or limiting the practice of some civil servants spending all their time on union duties and activities;
  • ending paid time off for union activities; and
  • developing a common civil service system for reporting and monitoring facility time.

The government also wants to carry out a wider reform of facility time across the public sector, estimated to cost £225 million a year, and ministers have been asked to review the situation in the areas of the public sector for which they are responsible. At least one local authority, Swindon Borough Council, is already seeking to abolish some facility time.

The moves to cut public sector facility time follow campaigning by a pressure group, the TaxPayers Alliance (TPA), and by the right wing of the Conservative Party, the larger party in the governing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Conservative MPs were heavily involved in the launch in January 2012 of the Trade Union Reform Campaign (TURC), which seeks to reform the laws and funding arrangements relating to trade unions, largely on the grounds that taxpayers should not be ‘forced to pay’ for unions.

Trade union reactions

Unions have reacted strongly to the threats to public sector facility time. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents civil servants, stated that only 0.2% of all working time in the civil service is accounted for by facility time, and that much of this is necessary because governments have decentralised national bargaining arrangements since the 1990s. In a statement to the online Union-News, PCS President, Janice Godrich, said that the plan to reduce facility time ‘looks like a very childish gesture, in the light of the hundreds of hours of good work that unions do’, and would be seen as a ‘vindictive’ move to punish unions for their opposition to ongoing public sector pensions reforms (UK1112029I).

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary, Brendan Barber, in a press release described the questioning of facility time ‘a thinly-veiled attack on unions and their ability to represent workers across the public sector’. The TUC published a report (73Kb PDF) in January 2012 arguing that facility time and other support offered to union representatives not only incurs costs for employers, but also delivers significant benefits to them. Drawing on earlier government research, the report calculates that for every £1 spent on facility time in the public sector, between £3 and £9 is returned in accrued benefits. The TUC called for the government review of facility time to be evidence-based, and to consider the benefits as well as the costs of supporting union representatives.

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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