Whose service is it anyway?

July 16, 2012

Sorry I was a bit quiet last week: I was sick.  Fortunately it was nothing to do with my blood pressure, because otherwise I think we might have had a bit of a mess today when my head exploded.

Why, do I hear you ask?

It all starts with the Cabinet Office consultation with the civil service unions about reforming facilities time.

(Incidentally, when did the word “reform” lose its meaning of “improve or amend, moving to a better state by abandoning what is wrong or corrupt” and instead come to mean “cut, preferably off at the knees”?)

OK let’s unpack this one a bit.  First of all, who is invited to consult?  Civil servants, that’s who.  Just civil servants.  Not the citizens who pay for government services (including the wages of civil servants) via our taxes.

Who cares?  Well the Taxpayers Alliance published a report last year claiming unions received more public funding than the political parties received donations, so  they’ve already had their two cents worth.  The Daily Mail has its opinion out there and it’s just what you’d expect.  Francis Maude has seemingly already made up his mind.

Yes, there are a few countervailing arguments.  The TUC had a go, commissioning a report, for example.  But where is the room for the wider argument, the opinion of the citizen, the consultation with the people who pay the civil service’s wages?

Secondly, and I know you know what I’m going to say, but where is the damned impact assessment?  The Government’s own rules say that when they are consulting about something with an impact on the public sector they should include an assessment of the costs and benefits of the proposal.  In this case, there’s a lot about how much facilities time is granted and what it’s used for and how it might be more closely regulated, and absolutely nothing about any benefits.  In other words, think about your own spending.  If you have to save money and you see you have two direct debits, one for £30 a month and one for £40, would you just stop the £40 payment? Or would you want to look at what you were paying for first? Instead of stopping payment on your house contents insurance because it costs £40 might you not first be well advised to consider the benefits of having cover, and the risks inherent in not having any?

Isn’t there also a legitimate expectation argument, in other words the government has said that it will consult before making regulatory changes and that this consultation will include an impact assessment?  If I were in one of the civil service unions I’d be looking closely at whether a judicial review was appropriate at this point, with the objective of asking the government to re-run their consultation on a rational basis, ie consulting fully with all the affected parties and including a proper assessment of the benefits, as well as the costs, of the proposals.

So I object to the limits on the consultees and on the lack of a proper consideration of the impacts.  What about the proposals themselves?

There are four areas covered in the consultation:

1) Reporting and benchmarking – developing a common system for reporting and monitoring Facility time across the Civil Service;

2) Ending or limiting the practice of 100% of Civil Service employees’ time being spent on trade union duties and activities;

3) Reviewing arrangements for time off for trade union activities so that the default is that this time is unpaid; and

4) Reduction in overall facility time across the Civil Service, in particular through more rigorous individual management of facility time. Ensuring that the provision of the use of facilities is appropriate, and represents good value to the taxpayer.

A “common system for reporting and monitoring” sounds like a reasonable idea but then I’m old enough to remember when the civil service had common pay and conditions that applied across departments and only required one team to negotiate and implement them instead of a different team in each department.

The second one is interesting.  As far as I can tell (and I’ve read the document twice so far) there’s absolutely no justification offered for wanting to end or limit the practice of having one person working for the union full time rather than thirty six people on an hour a week.  You elect a union president, for a year they’re union president full time, and then they go back to their job.  If that’s a problem, then can we see some evidence of what the problem is and why it’s a problem, please?

The third one is interesting: distinguishing between union duties and union activities and suggesting that you can get paid time off for one but not for the other.

We intend that we will develop and introduce a rigorous checking regime to support departments to differentiate between time off for duties and activities? Q3. How can we best introduce this approach? Are there any other approaches that you can suggest?

That’s an “it all depends what you mean by…” section.  What are duties and what are activities?  Well, helpfully listed in the appendix, I see that duties include

accompanying or representing a trade union member at a disciplinary or grievance hearing;

Now, I was a union personal caseworker for some years, but I never attended a disciplinary or grievance hearing.  I had discussions with people about whether they were in danger of disciplinary action or had cause to take grievance proceedings.  I accompanied people to formal and informal meetings with their managers or the people they managed to see if disagreements could be settled without recourse to disciplinary and grievance hearings.  Would all that time have been a “duty” – for which I would have been allowed paid work time – or an “activity” – for which I would have been expected to take unpaid leave?

And a “rigorous checking regime”?  So instead of someone being able to call on a colleague with some union training to help sort things out, what should we do now?  Perhaps private enterprise will step in and we’ll see a whole new raft of “ambulance chasing” lawyers offering no fee claims direct with a guarantee you’ll keep 100% of the compensation?

And the fourth objective of the consultation?  Words fail.  Is there any evidence that there is a need to reduce union facilities time?  Is there any evidence that a “rigorous individual management” of facilities time isn’t code for “bullying and victimising union members who choose to be active in their union”?  And is there a scintilla of evidence that trades union facilities time is not already “appropriate, and represents good value to the taxpayer”?


  1. What about all the positive work unions do to assist the employer!! Mind u there are some unions who need to crack down on their members who abuse facilities time

    • But where is the evidence of abuse?

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