UK Politics

MPs block bid to make unions repay millions

Strike on 30 November 2011
Image caption Up to two million people took part in last autumn's public sector strike

MPs have blocked a move to force unions to refund £113m to the state.

Conservative MP Jesse Norman proposed changing the law so that money earned by public sector staff while working as union officials should be returned.

He described some of their activities as "politicking, pure and simple". But Labour argued that their duties benefited colleagues and saved the taxpayer money in the long run.

The Commons rejected Mr Norman's proposal by a majority of 79.

In recent months, tensions between unions and the coalition have increased over the government's proposal to make public sector employees retire later and pay more into their pensions.

Ministers say this is vital to maintain the current system.

A mass walkout took place last November and many unions have yet to accept a revised offer from the government.

'Subsidised'

In the Commons Mr Norman argued that officials who carried out union duties while at work should not be paid by the state for the time they spend on union business.

There were 2,840 people in this position, he said, adding: "That is equivalent to 2,840 workers whose work has to be done by others.

"Those are teachers who are not teaching, nurses who are not working and social workers who are not assisting their clients."

Denying his ten-minute rule bill was an attack on unions, he demanded repayment, saying: "The issue here is one of basic principle. Taxpayers' money should be spent as far as possible on the front line of public services.

"In general, private organisations should not be subsidised by the state."

He also criticised south London nurse and union worker Jane Pilgrim, who had publicly criticised Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.

Mr Norman added: "That was politicking pure and simple. But the conflict between political activity and taxpayer funding would be removed, if unions were required to refund public money received, as this Bill would demand."

But Labour MP John Healey, a former shadow health secretary, accused Mr Norman of targeting "the most basic, most benign feature of trade union work - the day-to-day support for staff at work, by their colleagues".

He called the Bill "a cheap shot" at representatives who performed "difficult, demanding work" and said: "Many trade union reps rightly receive paid time off from their other work to carry out these duties.

"Many also devote much of their own time to that work."

Speaking outside the Commons, Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT transport union, accused Mr Norman of "piling in for a bit of '80s-style union-bashing".

Mr Crow added: "Responsible employers know that it makes perfect sense to have proper facilities and agreements that allow union reps to carry out their duties."

But Taxpayers' Alliance director Matthew Sinclair said: "Taxpayers shouldn't have to fund staff to work for trade unions, providing them with a huge activist base to support strikes and freeing up resources for political campaigns."

MPs defeated Mr Norman's Bill by 211 votes to 132.

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