Cynical Government attack on safety representatives
Today is the beginning of heartunions week. It also sees the House of Lords start discussing the detail of the Trade Union Bill.
The first is a celebration of the fantastic work that union representatives do in improving living standards, protecting workers and empowering their members. The second is a piece of legislation aimed at doing the exact opposite.
I have written previous blogs on the effect that the Bill will have on trade union health and safety representatives and what it will mean to workplace safety but it is worth highlighting one proposal that shows just how nasty the Bill is.
Clauses 12 and 13 of the Bill will allow the Government to restrict the amount of “facility time” given to union representatives in the public sector. Public sector employers will also have to record how much facility time is taken.
Now the time off given to union health and safety representatives to perform their functions is not, and never has been, facility time. It is a separate legal requirement of the Health and Safety at Work Act and the European Framework Directive. However, the Trade Union Bill specifically includes the time taken by union health and safety representatives in the Bill as facility time.
We have pointed out many times that it would be a breach of European legislation to restrict or cap the time that safety representatives take. So what is the Government’s response? It is to agree with us. The Minister has said ‘An employer must allow them as much paid time off work as is necessary or reasonable to perform their statutory functions and we absolutely do not propose to change that rule. We simply want to ensure that the time that tu reps collectively spend on union duties and activities during working hours at taxpayers’ expense is justifiable and accountable and that it represents value for money.’
That might sound as though the Government has realised that it has made a mistake and is going to correct it by removing the restrictions on time of for union health and safety representatives from the Bill. No such luck. A more careful reading shows that what they are proposing is one of the most dangerous and divisive moves against health and safety representatives we have ever seen.
The Government is saying that health and safety representatives can have as much time off as they need, but the total amount of time that the union in a workplace can have for time off will be capped at a certain level. Therefore, every hour that a health and safety representative takes to perform their functions, comes off the total which is allowed for the other representatives, such as stewards, equality, and green representatives.
In a nutshell, the Government is trying to force unions themselves to restrict the time taken by health and safety representatives by saying that they are not going to stop health and safety representatives from having what they are entitled to, but it will be at the expense of the other workplace representatives. This way they think they can prevent any challenge to the legality of the regulations under European law and still curb the time that is taken.
What our health and safety representatives do is, without doubt, massively effective. You just have to read “The Union Effect”. They save countless numbers of people from injury and ill-health. But the work of those other union representatives is also crucial. Whether it is negotiating better pay, supporting members facing discrimination or bullying, or any of the day to day issues that unions do so well and effectively.
Trying to force public sector unions to decide who is given what slice of the allocated time off will mean that the union would have to decide what it thinks is most important. This is an impossible task. Union representatives work as a team and the time that they need to undertake their duties (or functions in the case of safety representatives) depends on the nature of the workplace and the problems that they face. My experience has always been that employers who have a bad health and safety culture in respect of health and safety, are usually pretty bad at other employment issues.
It is hard to find words that describe what the Government is proposing. They know perfectly well what they are doing and what the implications are They have not even bothered to claim that it will save money (it won’t) or that it will remove “burdens” (it will be an administrative nightmare for employers). It is a cynical attack on ordinary trade union members who have volunteered to help their colleagues and the only reason they have for doing it is because of an ideological objection to trade unions.
The Lords are debating the Bill this week but this clause is not likely to be reached until next week. There are very helpful amendments which seek to remove the clauses on facility time which we hope that Peers will support. You can find out more about the Bill at https://www.tuc.org.uk/TUbill