25/11/2011 08:59 GMT | Updated 24/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Taxpayer Funding of Trade Unions

The TaxPayers' Alliance has released new research this morning, revealing that the equivalent of 2,840 full time public sector staff work for trade unions. That is more staff than the British Transport Police have officers. The Department for Work and Pensions has over 300 full time equivalent staff working for unions just on its own, and the unions claim nearly 200 staff from the taxman at HMRC every year.

Things don't get much better when we move down the administrative ladder. Birmingham council has the equivalent of an incredible 62 full time staff working for the unions. The Met Police has 16, and Suffolk Primary Care Trust has 19.

This army of union workers is paid for by taxpayers. They are given time off for facility time, which they are entitled to by law, as long as it's deemed 'reasonable'. But we found that a significant amount of public bodies do not even record facility time: 257, to be precise. How they are supposed to deem any time off as reasonable if they don't even record it is beyond me.

What's more, what is deemed 'reasonable' varies wildly from one organisation to another. Is it reasonable that Birmingham council has 62 full time equivalents, but Leeds council has 16? Or that the Rural Payments Agency has more than 12 but the Environment Agency two? Reform is long overdue.

Aside from improving the legislation let's just imagine that, at the very least, public sector bodies used facility time to the same extent as private sector organisations. As we outline in the report, public sector bodies spend 0.14% of their annual pay bill on facility time, while private sector organisations spend 0.04% of theirs. 2,840 full time equivalent employees work for unions, so that means just dropping to private sector standards would release the equivalent of 2,028 public sector employees back to the jobs they were supposed to do. Teachers could teach, and nurses could look after patients. It would also save taxpayers £57 million.

The unions will argue aggressively in favour of facility time. Let's accept their reasoning about why it's so important, for the sake of argument. Why can't they, at the very least, drop the amount of time spent on union duties to private sector levels? Why can't they do their bit to help public bodies cut back on spending and save taxpayers some cash?

And let's not pretend that every single public sector worker out there is a-ok with their colleagues taking so much time off to perform union duties, either. There will be public sector workers that are sick of taking on so much extra work because there's a member of their team off doing something else.

Facility time is an unfair taxpayer-funded subsidy to unions, which frees up money for campaigns. It should be scrapped and paid for out of union coffers. In the meantime, facility time in the public sector should drop down to private sector levels and public sector bodies should most certainly rigorously record it.