Facing down facility time

By Emily Preston


Taxpayers have funded trade union facility time since the Employment Protection Act of 1975. This legislation has allowed for trade union representatives, some spending up to 100 per cent of their working hours, to undertake union ‘duties’ and ‘activities’. These include collective bargaining over pay and planning strike action, like the kind the country is about to face. After the Act failed to place fundamental restrictions upon public sector unions, strikes caused repeated disruption to vital public services such as travel and education.


The government later attempted to limit this chaos with the Trade Union Act of 2016. Unions were now required to have 50 per cent of their members vote in a ballot for legal strike action. Further regulations in 2017 required public sector bodies to publish information on facility time and gave ministers the power to limit it. Nonetheless, we highlighted that in 2020, taxpayers were still bearing extortionate facility time costs. We revealed in the Daily Mail an £81 million cost for 16,224 union representatives, 920 of whom were using taxpayer funded time to spend 100 per cent of their working hours working for their union.


This weekend, new TaxPayers’ Alliance research revealed that facility time costs increased to almost £100 million in 2021, with 24,000 public sector workers now moonlighting as trade union officials on taxpayers’ time. 


These figures were only a minor improvement from our 2010/11 report, which highlighted that trade unions received £113 million of funding from the taxpayer. The anaemic progress of cuts on facility time is evidence that a soft approach has failed to effectively combat the privileges enjoyed by trade unions.


One reason for this large wastage of taxpayers’ money derives from the government’s refusal to cap the amount spent by public sector employers on facility time. This reserve power was granted to ministers by the Trade Union Act, yet taxpayers are still footing the bill for public sector unions lobbying for more cash. This comes despite the large funds raised through membership subscriptions to these unions, an attractive alternative to funding the work of their representatives.


Facility time in the public sector is only likely to increase. Industrial action is on the rise. This has already been seen this year in the higher education sector, as 20 universities have partaken in a marking boycott. This further adds to the 18 days of teaching already lost due to industrial action. We found last year, the University of Leeds spent the most on facility time across all UK universities at a whopping £395,552, with families of students endorsing the strikes that disrupted vital learning.


When ordinary folk are experiencing a 70-year high tax burden and disruptive strike action, it cannot be right for large sums of public money to continue being spent on facility time. With rising inflation and a cost of living crisis, now is the perfect time for the government to introduce the promised cap.

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