Ministers crack down on taxpayer funding of trade union ‘militants’

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Ministers are launching a crackdown on taxpayer funding of trade union “militants” as they move to limit the amount of public funds spent on union activities.

Public sector workers including local authority staff, police and teachers can take paid time out from their duties to engage in union activities under an arrangement known as “facility time”, but the Government is drawing up legislation aimed at limiting the amount of taxpayer money that can be spent on this.

It is understood that the series of rail strikes in recent weeks, with more action threatened over the summer by bus drivers and postal workers, has hastened ministers’ resolve to act.

“Unions are taking taxpayers for a ride,” said a government source. “Lots of members of the hard-working public may not be aware that they are inadvertently subsidising trade union militants.”

The TaxPayers’ Alliance recently revealed that trade union officials could receive up to £199 million a year in “hidden subsidies” funded by the public purse.

Analysis by the think tank estimates that more than £100 million of facility time goes unreported, on top of the £98 million logged for 2020-21.

A ‘ridiculous waste of money’

A letter from Heather Wheeler, the Cabinet Office minister, seen by The Telegraph, explained the Government’s intention to implement guidance for all public sector bodies on the “proportionate use of facility time to ensure value for money to the taxpayer”.

An almost empty Victoria station, in London, as rail workers took strike action on Wednesday Credit: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

The letter, sent to Boris Johnson and relevant Cabinet sub-committees last week, said legislation telling organisations to reduce the amount of money spent on facility time to 0.06 per cent of their total pay bill would be brought forward.

The legislation is not expected to report before Mr Johnson leaves office on Sep 6, but Cabinet Office sources believe it will be welcomed by Tory leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.

A second Cabinet source said allowing public sector workers to spend their time on union activities was a “ridiculous waste of money”. 

The source said ministers were also trying to clamp down on “woke facility time”, where officials can take hours on projects where they “tell people how to check their white privilege”.

Changes ‘are long overdue’

Nadhim Zahawi, the Chancellor, who ran for the Tory leadership but was knocked out at an early stage, is understood to be supportive of the clampdown.

“These regulations represent proper Conservative steps to roll back subsidies for militant trade unions and save hard-working British taxpayers a small fortune,” sources close to Mr Zahawi said.

John O’Connell, the chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “These rules to rein in facility time for public sector officials are long overdue. The two Tory leadership contenders could win taxpayers’ trust by promising to implement this crackdown as soon as possible.”  

Research by the think tank, published last month, found that the true cost may be far higher because some public bodies exploit loopholes in the current rules to avoid reporting how many hours officials are spending on conducting union activities during the working day.