Public bodies' incomprehensible or misleading responses to trade union funding FOI requests

The TaxPayers’ Alliance yesterday exposed the scandalous amount of taxpayers’ money being used to subsidise trade union activity through both direct grants and so-called facility time. Finding out how our money is spent should be easy. But ferreting it out proved to be an arduous task as many public bodies provided incomprehensible or misleading responses to our requests for information. You can listen to our Chief Executive, Matthew Sinclair, discuss the findings of the report on yesterday's BBC Radio 4 Today programme below:

Shockingly, nineteen public bodies never replied to our requests at all despite being legally obliged to under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Another 461 either did not provide or confessed that they do not to record some or even all of the staff time they provide to trade unions at all.

One offender was Derbyshire Fire Service who refused to provide a response without first being paid £450 claiming the request would generate too much work for their HR department. Other bodies appeared unable to comprehend what was being asked of them, repeatedly giving confused or unintelligible replies despite repeated clarifications. The standard accounting and HR terminology of “full time equivalent” staff numbers seemed beyond the grasp of the HR and finance staff who would have dealt with our response, raising questions about the level of competence in the public sector.

Clatterbridge NHS Foundation Trust listed a number of trade unions in their reply, before going onto say that these were only the main ones their HR departments are ‘aware of.’ This bizarre phrase makes you wonder whether their HR department even knows which trade unions are operating within their trust. More alarming still was the response from Dudley and Walsall Mental Health Trust, who copied and pasted a standard text issued by the trade union Unite, presumably keen for councils and other public sector bodies to keep the true cost of its disgraceful subsidy hidden from taxpayers issued this standard reply to public bodies:

“It is acceptable to respond that the organisation does not collect information on the daily interaction between union representatives and managers or union representatives and their members and that it would be financially prohibitive and impractical to do so”.

The difficulty we encounter when trying to expose how much of our money is being spent on trade unions raises serious questions about the commitment to transparency and efficient use of taxpayers’ money in some organisations. This is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue. All public organisations must ensure in that they provide full and frank disclosures about how they spend our money and if they don’t keep proper records about how it is spent then that should change urgently, too.

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