Eric’s in a Pickle again

Eric Pickles MP

I won’t dignify this with a caption

It’s fair to say that Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is not a popular chap in Local Government. If he’s not waxing on about weekly bin collections, slating us for building up reserves to help manage the impacts of the cuts he plans for us, or delaying the announcement of the local government settlement to the last possible moment, then he is busy telling local government how to do its job. He’s about as popular to local government workers as privatisation, or a national tea shortage.

The Pickles dislike reached its nadir just before Christmas when the Government wasted both time and taxpayers money on the frankly idiotic ‘50 ways to save‘. Now, if local government had spent time and money producing such a waste of paper, Eric would have had a field day over it – something about ‘wasting the money of hard-pressed taxpayers’ or some other rubbish. I could go on about this complete pile of bovine by-product, but Toby Blume has already done this far more comprehensively, and far funnier, than I could ever achieve. Instead, one focuses one bile at what can only be described as ’50 ways to save II – The Taxpayers Alliance strikes again’. Or Taxpayer funding of trade unions: delivering sensible savings in local government to give it the proper title.

The first thing to deal with is the utter horseshit that is the title of the document. This is not about taxpayers ‘funding’ trade unions, it is about ‘facility time’. For those unfamiliar with the concept, facility time is time off during work hours so that representatives can carry out trade union duties and activities. This is not taxpayers funding trade unions, it is providing time for nominated trade union representatives to undertake their duties – things like helping staff with disputes, representing members and staff in meetings with senior managers and political leaders, providing advice and support to staff, and – yes, on occasions – balloting staff for strike action. A fundamental difference to what is inferred in the title.

Now onto the key principles that underpin the document. These constitute suggestions that are obnoxious, patronising, idiotic, with an actual half-decent idea chucked in for good measure. Here we go:

  • There should be full transparency on the level of facility time given to trade unions. To be fair, he has an argument on this one. Transparency is a good thing, and people are entitled to know and question how public authorities spend their time and money. I trust this will, of course, extend to other massively important things like how much time staff spend in meetings, and how much time politicians spend on entertaining their friends and guests on the taxpayers.
  • Employees should not be spending all or the majority of their working hours on trade union duties. Most don’t, instead undertaking trade union activities on their days off, at the weekend, in the evening, or making up the time at the end of the day because they were on trade union business in the morning. For most, it is purely ancillary to their job.
  • Time off for trade union activities should be unpaid. See my last point.
  • Overall, the amount of facility time should be reduced and should be limited to a set percentage of an organisation’s pay bill. Of course, there is a magic number associated with this which is the inevitable private sector comparator of 0.04%. Completely ignoring minor facts like the public sector is more unionised than the private sector, and therefore is bound to have a higher percentage of facility time than the private sector.
  • Restrictions should be placed on the use of office facilities for trade union representatives. This is entirely at the behest of local authorities (you know, that localism thing). Besides, as the guidance points out it is illegal for trade unions to use taxpayer facilities to fund political campaigns and activities.
  • Councils should charge for collecting union charges, or not collect them at all. Yep, that’ll do wonders for staff morale: “Yeah, we know you had to take a pay cut last year, but because you are a member of a trade union we will have to charge you for that to.” Never mind that the cost of doing this is marginal, at best.
  • Councillors should declare payments and sponsorship from trade unions and ensure there is no conflict of interest. This is done already because they are required to do so by law. Sweet Jesus.

But the most enfuriating thing about this whole policy document is its blatant political nature. The fact that a report by The Taxpayers Alliance that I can best describe as highly flawed is referenced 3 times in 7 pages (5 pages if you exclude the cover and the copyright stuff on the inside page) is just testament to this. The benefits of trade union facility time in local government in terms of improving staff morale, better change management, and reducing absenteeism is well established (yes its a trade union source, but its the only one I could find in a hurry). The fact that civil servants have spent time, effort, and taxpayer expense on this political guff serenading as official advice is fucking disgusting.

Its not even as if all this time and effort is being spent producing guidance on something that will make any difference financially. Even the document itself states that the total staff cost of facility time for trade unions across the public sector is 0.14% of total staff costs. Staff costs are estimated to be around 50% of local authority spending. So this is official government guidance aimed solely and squarely at 0.07% of the costs of local government.

Here’s a better suggestion, Mr Pickles, for better use of staff time and taxpayers money in local government: stop getting your civil servants to produce such partisan, simplistic, ignorant bullshit with an official DCLG stamp on it. Then we won’t have to waste time reading said guff, laughing at it with our colleagues, and putting it in the shredder. I’m sure you can understand that this is a massive waste of staff time and resources.


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