Throughout this unprecedented public health crisis, the efforts of our healthcare professionals have remained at the forefront of the nation’s conscience. This widespread feeling of gratitude has been encapsulated by national claps, astonishing charity drives and windows across the country emblazoned with the letters “NHS”. In many ways, the health service is defined in our minds by the extraordinary individuals on the frontline.
But like any mammoth organisation, there’s more to it. Behind the services it provides stands not only one of the world’s largest workforces, but also the bureaucracy which comes with it. Like any and all public sector institutions, it must be fit for purpose for the hard-pressed taxpayers who both pay dearly for it and depend on it in their hour of need. Diving into the data, as we did with our recent analysis of OECD health spending data, tells us where things can be improved.
For example, during our landmark War on Waste investigation with the Daily Mail, we uncovered how a number of NHS trusts and services had paid for trade union facility time for staff. This is bad news for taxpayers. Employees who serve as trade union representatives get paid time-off during working hours to carry out their duties. As the numbers below illustrate, time really is money.
From this small sample of health boards alone, over 350 healthcare workers have been granted paid trade union facility time, to the tune of over £1.35 million. For context, this amounts to the cost of over 100,000 coronavirus vaccine jabs at GP surgeries, or a year's salary for over 50 new nurses.
So what exactly is trade union facility time, which comes at such a big cost? Trade union representatives are entitled to take paid time-off to carry out union ‘duties’ under the Employment Protection Act of 1975. That means everything from normal duties to things like planning strike action. Unions defend this practice to the hilt, for obvious reasons, but it is undeniable that it results in a terrible deal for taxpayers. In this case, not only are healthcare workers permitted to take time away from their often vital duties, they are actually paid to do some from the public purse. This seems deeply unfair. Trade unions should be footing the bill through their members’ subscriptions for representation within public sector organisations. How can it be right for taxpayers to be made to shoulder this burden when unions are already capable of raising substantial sums?
Let’s not forget what these all too powerful unions get up to with their vast fortunes. As revealed in the latest edition of our Trade Union Rich List, the chair and general secretary of the British Medical Association received almost £200,000 in total remuneration in 2019. His salary alone (£171,000) was over six times what a foundation (FY1) doctor working in the NHS would have received in 2020. Unison for example, who claim that nearly half a million of their members work in the NHS, advocated against Brexit, officially fund the Labour Party and is instrumental in NHS strikes and walkouts. According to the Office for National Statistics, over 4.3 million public sector working days were lost between 2010 and 2018 due to strike action, compounding the cost to taxpayers yet again.
Taxpayers recognise that a nationalised health service is an expensive venture; one which requires them to dig deep into their pockets to fund. However, when such substantial funds are spent propping up well-resourced, partisan unions instead of delivering vital frontline support, hard-pressed households are bound to feel ripped off. Let’s not forget that the chancellor also made a special exemption for NHS staff from the public sector pay freeze announced in his November comprehensive spending review, at a time when private sector workers across the country faced wage stagnation and unemployment.
Putting an end to taxpayer-funded trade union time in the NHS and beyond won’t be a panacea for our gravely-wounded economy, but it will certainly signify that we’re all in it together when it comes to its recovery. Nurses, doctors, surgeons and all those who staff our hospitals and local surgeries have done a remarkable job of tending to the nation’s health over the past year, but they can yet play a vital role in healing Britain’s finances.