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Ulster businesses up in arms as taxpayer foots growing bill for union activities of civil servants

The business community here has hit out at the growing cost to taxpayers of paying for the trade union activities of public servants.

The Belfast Telegraph revealed yesterday that taxpayers are contributing £5m a year to fund the wages of public sector staff who spend their time on union business.

And the real cost is likely to be even higher as many public sector bodies kept no accurate records of time spent on union business.

Jeff Peel, a member of the Conservative Party and owner of a consultancy firm, said the high cost should be closely examined.

"It is ridiculous that people are spending time on trade union business at taxpayer expense," he said.

And he said the private sector was able to exercise a "clearer demarcation" between what workers did in the office and as part of their trade union activities.

Mr Peel said trade union representatives were often taking part in union activities which were of no benefit to the colleagues they were tasked with representing. The annual cost of covering their wages tops £4.7m here - with the five health trusts alone running up a bill of £1.5m, according to the TaxPayers' Alliance. "You just shouldn't have union reps in the public sector here being able to traipse off to take part in a picket of other premises, and the public purse having to pay for that," he said.

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And Irwin Armstrong, the owner of CIGA Healthcare in Ballymena, said: "This absolutely gets my goat, for various reasons.

"Unions are very well-funded organisations and are so well-funded they can afford to give £11m to the Labour Party.

"Paying for employees' trade union activities is an unnecessary cost to the public purses."

He said unions received on average £150 per member per year in membership fees. "Union incomes are high so why is the taxpayer funding them as well?"

Mr Armstrong, whose firm manufactures around 40% of pregnancy tests used in the UK, said his own workplace used a log-in system using employees' fingerprints.

All employees, regardless of rank, were required to submit a fingerprint to record time of arrival and time of departure, and also for health and safety purposes.

"It would be very easy for the public sector to have a similar system which would allow people to come and go for union activities."