A backbench motion to outlaw so-called "Pilgrims" - taxpayer funded representatives from the trades unions - has been defeated in the Commons after Labour galvanised the overwhelming majority of its MPs to vote against it.
Tory backbencher Jesse Norman - considered one of the rising stars of the Conservative party - introduced a 10 minute rule motion, which would have paved the way to introducing a Bill outlawing pilgrims.
However in the face of overwhelming Labour opposition, Norman was unable to muster nearly enough Tories to support his motion, in effect ruling out any change to the law for the foreseeable future.
Many Tories find the concept of taxpayers funding trades union officials offensive. A recent adjournment debate by now-disgraced Tory MP Aidan Burley descended into highly un-Parliamentary exchanges between the MP for Cannock Chase and Merseyside MP Steve Rotheram.
Today's motion by Jesse Norman was first articulated in an article by him in The Telegraph on Tuesday, entitled "Why Are Taxpayers Still Funding The Unions?".
Jesse Norman wrote:
The point of the measure is not to attack the unions, many of which do very good work on behalf of their members. No, the issue is one of basic principle: is it appropriate for the taxpayer to subsidise any large-scale activity by private organisations? And if it is, should this be allowed without proper processes of competitive tender and public accountability?
To both questions, my answer would be a resounding No.
Pilgrims are named after Jane Pilgrim, a prominent trade union representative who was originally thought to be a nurse, but whom was revealed to be a full-time trade union organiser last year.
The revelations surrounding Jane Pilgrim caused many Tories to look closely into how widespread the practice was.
In a bad-tempered debate in the Commons, former Labour minister John Healey made an impassioned defence of pilgrims, saying in many workplaces they helped to improve health and safety, quality and standards. He described the motion as a "personal attack" on representatives who helped to improve literacy and numeracy.
He added that pilgrims were the "unsung heroes of a long proud British tradition of volunteering," because they worked in their own time as well as paid-time. Healey suggested they were a valuable part of the PMs vision of a big society.
In the end the motion was rejected by 132 votes to 211, a Labour majority of 79.
Jonathan Isaby, Political Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said that the group would "continue to press ministers vigorously" on the issue despite the bill being rejected:
“It was rich of John Healey to accuse the TaxPayers’ Alliance of ‘inaccurate briefing’, given that any inaccuracies in the data we have published only come from a failure on the part of unions and some public sector organisations properly to record the facility time taken during working hours.
"As a result, the figures we have been able to collate are in fact likely to be an underestimate of the taxpayer subsidy to the unions. We have no quarrel with trade unions working to represent their members, but it is those members – not the taxpayer – who should be funding those activities.”
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