Dianne Hayter on the government’s strange and unusual plans to measure trade union ‘facility time’
Later today, the House of Lords detailed consideration of the Trade Union Bill will turn to another pernicious little provision – the measuring and potential capping of ‘Facility Time’. Otherwise known as the paid time off which lay officials, and safety and learning ‘reps’ use to represent, advise or train their union’s members, and to negotiate with management.
Such work is the backbone of trade unionism, with reps undertaking more input than full time union officials. As all good managers know, it contributes to better communications in the workplace. And at times of restructuring, redundancy, job evaluation, re-grading and re-location, plays a key role in smoothing transitional arrangements.
Putting to one side the Conservatives normal talk of ‘cutting red tape’ and their new found championing of localism, it’s odd that Minsters are now going down this Whitehall-driven, bureaucratic route. Mandating devolved authorities, councils, public bodies (such as the BBC, museums, theatres and galleries) and non -public bodies delivering public services (for example, charities and social care providers) to measure and document work carried out on facility time duties. I can’t be the only one thinking this all, rather ironically, smacks a bit of soviet-era production stats?
In reality, the gathering of such data will mean nothing. An increase could reflect meaningful talks over re-location or redundancy, or new ways of working. Equally, it could be a result of bad management practices having led to increased grievance cases. The government however, seem to think it’s all about lay union reps pulling the equivalent of a ‘sickie’, illustrating how little they know – or care – about good workplace relations.
Even worse is the fact that Ministers also want to cap facility time – a gross interference not just with their civil servants (as they can already do this) but many other employees: in schools, hospitals, universities and nursing homes, along with non-public bodies working in those sectors. All with no evidence that facility time is not needed or welcomed by employers; and in the face of strong support for such time by a number of large health trusts. Local government meanwhile, is stressing it’s for it not central government to determine councils’ workforce relations.
In fact, this arbitrary and wide ranging power to curtail facility time (by an unspecified amount) would potentially breach existing collective agreements and contracts of employment. It might also conflict with existing legal rights, under the 1992 Trade Union & Labour Relations Act; the right to be accompanied in a grievance or disciplinary hearing, under the 1999 Employment Relations Act; and health and safety duties, under the 1974 Health & Safety at Work Act.
Does any of this matter to this government? It is clear it brooks no dissent, whether from the Lords, charities on behalf of their beneficiaries, or the voice of workers in their own place of employment if it receives public money.
Starting with our amendments to the Bill during the Committee stage debate today, Labour Peers will oppose these measures. Britain has a good industrial relations record. Why on earth would the Conservatives want to undermine this? Other than to put another cap on what they perceive, in their narrow binary view of politics and life, to be a potential voice of opposition.
Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Cabinet Office Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords
Published 23rd February 2016