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Trade unions' £5m a cause for concern

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 28/09/2015

Many people will be surprised that £5m is being spent annually from the public purse to pay for the trade union activities of civil servants.
Many people will be surprised that £5m is being spent annually from the public purse to pay for the trade union activities of civil servants.

Many people will be surprised that £5m is being spent annually from the public purse to pay for the trade union activities of civil servants. Around 140 staff in the public sector work full time on union duties. This is a very sizeable number and reflects the disproportionate size of the public sector in Northern Ireland.

Of course it is right and proper - particularly in an era when governments are keen to rein in the rights of workforces - that staff in any organisation obtain adequate union representation to safeguard them against unscrupulous employers.

And trade unions do have an important role in the public debate on all sorts of issues relating to employment. So it is disingenuous of a trade union representative to denounce this revelation on how much the public purse contributes to worker representation as union-bashing. That is not the case. Instead it is an issue which deserves to be aired publicly.

We know that the public sector is having to bear a severe austerity burden thanks to the fiscal policy of the Tory Government. In that case it is vitally important that no money is wasted - a message which does not yet seem to have registered at Stormont where the impasse over welfare reform is costing tens of millions of pounds from the public purse.

The unions may be correct in saying that relatively speaking the £5m spent on paying civil servants engaged in union duties - it could actually be more given that agency staff have to be employed to cover for them when they are away from their desks - is a minuscule proportion of the public sector budget.

But the question people in the private sector or who are unemployed will be asking is why the public purse should be subsidising the work of trade unions at all?

Public sector trade unions have a large membership - many public bodies actually collect the union dues as well as subsidising officials' work - and surely there must be an argument that they could either fund their full-time workers entirely or make a contribution towards it.

There is not lots of spare cash in the public sector at this time. Indeed, Stormont is in danger of running out of money in the very near future. Daily we see frontline services being hit by spending cuts and it would be ironic if public spending on trade union activities ends up costing workers their jobs.

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