05/12/2011 12:42 GMT

John Healey Brands Union Reps 'The Workplace Wing Of The Big Society'

The "Big Society" was one of David Cameron's bigger ideas upon entering office, but, surprisingly, it was Labour shadow health secretary John Healey who offered an example of the initiative on Monday.

While communities minister Eric Pickles was taking questions in Parliament, Healey took aim at the government's criticism of unions, defending council-subsidised union representatives by referring to them as “the workplace wing of the Prime Minister’s Big Society.”

Healey's jibe at the coalition's misfired social policy did not faze Pickles, who instead shot down union 'pilgrims'. “All local authorities need to be making sensible savings to protect frontline services and to keep council tax down,” Pickles said, before adding: “Councils should be reviewing the merits of these publicly-funded, full-time union officials.”

Pickles went on to refer to the reps as union “non-jobs” paid for by councils. “It's wrong that council tax should be used to subsidise trade union activity,” he concluded.

The strong riposte from Pickles echoes the words of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who wrote to fellow Tory MP Aidan Burley, initiator of the Trade Union Reform Campaign.

Cameron questioned the necessity and affordability of voluntary union representatives being subsidised through councils, and thus through taxpayer council tax. It is claimed that close to £113m of council tax goes towards the union representatives.

The Prime Minister wrote: “I strongly believe the current level of public subsidy to the trade unions cannot be sustained, either morally or economically. We need to question why the public is paying for so much, and whether this is sustainable going forward.”