Petition launched to stop Council cuts to trade unions

Portsmouth City Council trade unions have launched an online petition as Portsmouth City Council proposes to end all trade union secondments as part of the forthcoming cuts required of the local authority by central government. By Sarah Cheverton.

The secondments – also referred to as Facility Time – release trade union representatives from their day jobs in order to represent members, offer guidance and negotiate on behalf of all Council staff. Such negotiations are often at the centre of trade disputes, with union representatives playing a vital role in ensuring workers’ rights are enforced.

‘Facility time’ refers to time off from an individual’s job, granted by the employer, to enable trade union representatives to carry out their role. In some cases, trade union representatives are fully seconded from their regular jobs, enabling them to work full time on trade union tasks. In other cases, employers allow trade union representatives to carry out trade union duties and activities, instead of their substantive job, for a certain amount of time per week or month.

Portsmouth City Council is legally obliged to pay trade union reps for the time they spend representing the workforce, but secondments simplify arranging time off and cover. By ending secondments, Portsmouth City Council trade unions state, the local authority will increase costs, create long delays in resolving workplace issues and expose themselves to legal challenges.

Portsmouth City Council has already delivered £75m of savings over the last five years and needs to find a further £31m in the three years from 2016/17 out of £125m of the spend it controls. The proposed budget savings aim to deliver £11m of savings in the next financial year.

The proposal to cut secondments to trade union officials in Portsmouth follows similar measures in other parts of the country, including in Carmathen, Wales and Barking and Dagenham, London. The Coalition Government announced its plans to reduce Facility Time in local government in a 2013 paper, in which Eric Pickles – then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – outlined the department’s reasons for cutting taxpayer support for trade unions.

“I believe that trade unions continue to play an important and constructive role in the modern workplace. But for too long in the public sector, trade unions have received taxpayer funding that is poor value for money and inadequately controlled. Reducing such public subsidies to trade unions is a practical way that councils can save money, to keep council tax down and protect frontline services for local residents – including union members themselves.

“Trade union activities and campaigning in local councils should be funded bymembers’ subscriptions, not bankrolled by the taxpayer. Freedom from state dependency will also mean that trade union bosses will better reflect and respond to the wishes and views of the grassroots members who pay the bill.”

However, local trade unions insist that cutting the provision of trade union secondments – quoted as saving £75,000 in the recent budget savings proposals – will actually increase the Council’s overall expenditure.

The petition states that as a result of cutting funding to the secondments, Portsmouth City Council “will be exposed to costly Employment Tribunal and personal injury claims which would otherwise have been prevented through the guidance and involvement of seconded representatives; statutory formal procedures will take longer to complete as the Council fails to find trade union stewards available to participate; collective agreements formed by employer and trade unions on behalf of the staff, which benefit both the Council and the employees, will not be reached as trade union representatives are unlikely to be released by their local manager to work on these or get their existing work covered in their absence.

Portsmouth trade unions also highlights fears that the proposed cuts to representation has its roots in right wing ideology, with local authority leaders attempting to remove support to workers due to the impact of the cuts, including an estimated 100 job losses as a result of the forthcoming savings.

“We fear that with redundancies already planned, the Council wants to remove the protection, reassurance and independent advice that Council staff receive from their trade unions.”

Jon Woods, Portsmouth City UNISON Branch Chair told Star and Crescent, “Trade unions are the last line of defence for public services and the workers who keep them going. The politics of austerity and cuts means they are more important than ever.”

Signing the petition, Jon Woods said, was vital to “defend effective trade unionism.”

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.