Facility time is time off from an individual’s job, granted by the employer, to enable a trade union rep to carry out their trade union role. It is common practice in both the private and public sector, endorsed by law and statutory guidance and widely accepted by employers as a sensible way of facilitating engagement with workplace representatives. In short, trade union facility time has never been a controversial issue.
That was until the hard-right of the Tory Party and the Taxpayers Alliance decided this was an issue ripe for misrepresentation and mischief making. Why call it trade union facility time, when you can call it “taxpayer funding of trade unions”?
After some spurious research on the issue published by the TPA, Tory MPs and a few of their parliamentary researchers decided to set up their own campaign group called the “Trade Union Reform Campaign” (TURC), Chaired by Right-wing Tory MP Aidan Burley. Most interestingly of all, in November 2011 our formerly moderate, Big Society embracing Prime Minister endorsed the creation of TURC. The group states that it’s top priority is to campaign against public bodies paying for “time spent by employees on trade union activity.” They go on to define this as trade union “facility time”.
Since then this tiny, unrepresentative group have connived with their ever-willing friends in sections of the press to place stories which give an entirely negative picture of trade union activity in the public sector. These stories conspicuously ignore the benefits which come to both employers and the taxpayer as a result of granting facility time. It is, of course, a diversionary tactic. Some Tories hope that if they can peddle enough misleading information about trade unions and the public sector, people will pay less attention to the real source of service cuts and growth-strangling economic policy – the Tory led government itself.
Unfortunately, the TURC’s extremist position is now in danger of influencing Government policy. The Cabinet Office is currently in the process of producing a policy paper on the use of facility time in the civil service. This review, the results of which are imminent, will influence new guidance issued to councils across the UK.
Of course, with anti-union ideologues making a disproportionate amount of noise, there is a danger that the Government will fail to hear the sensible voices of employers and trade unionists in this debate. The TUC has already published valuable quantitative research on the economic value of trade union facility time, but there is clearly still a lack of understanding of what facility time is and how it benefits employers and the taxpayer.
To address this UNISON has commissioned a respected and independent research organisation to investigate trade union facility time in the public sector and report on the value which it brings. Nat Cen Social Research have now concluded their research and their authoritative report tells a very different story to the back of an envelope work of the TURC. Nat Cen regularly carry out work for Government departments and operate a research ethic s committee system to oversee their work and ensure high standards and independence.
The report, which was based on three focus groups and 129 written submissions from both trade unionists and employers shows the huge benefits which came those organisations (and to taxpayers) as a result of granting trade union facility time. They concluded that the use of facility time in workplaces where UNISON organises provided the following benefits
- Provision of a ready-made structure for meaningful consultation and negotiation saving organisations money and providing reassurance to members that their views are valued in decision-making.
- Facilitation of partnership working with trade unions that improved workplace relations and the reputation of an employer as ‘a good place to work’.
- Earlier intervention in relation to complaints, grievances and disciplinaries preventing escalation into more serious problems; thereby saving organisations and taxpayers money by reducing the impact on staff time and possible legal costs.
- Better communication to manage change during restructuring and redundancy processes; thereby improving understanding of decisions, minimising negative impacts and reducing the number of working days lost through industrial action.
They also concluded that “Where reps were released or seconded from their substantive posts the quality of representation and availability of reps was further improved because reps were able to focus further on their duties, prepare better for discussions with managers and build up relationships of respect trust with managers over time.”
The report gives a qualitative overview of how facility time operates, giving examples of how it can benefit the smooth running of an organisation. Here is just one quote from a public sector manager describing how facility time helped with the implementation of a new data entry system:
“After the introduction of a new IT system management wanted to introduce action plans to help increase input figures and improve accuracy. They needed our support to implement this. The action plans could lead to a disciplinary if targets were consistently missed… Facility time was granted for reps to attend meetings with management (which also required a lot of travel). Facility time was also granted for the branch to hold workplace meetings with members to discuss the changes and balloted members on accepting changes. Without facility time none of this would have been possible”
Below is another quote from the report describing how facility time minimised the impact of cuts in local authority library services:
“The council had to reduce its staffing numbers due to central government finance settlements. The trade union worked with management to avoid compulsory redundancies, put support packages in to enable redesign of services to protect the frontline; exercised council’s legal requirements without any challenge saving money and upset. Worked with staff to move people into different careers that benefited the Council and the local community. The trade unions had local knowledge and was responsive to ensure the Council met its requirements without industrial unrest in a very difficult situation”
The Nat Cen Social Research report “The Value of trade Union Facility Time” can be downloaded here.
This important new research gives the lie to the political propaganda put about by the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the TURC. Trade Union facility time is the rock on which constructive workplace engagement is built. It would be folly in the extreme for the Government to do away with it.