The unions can't be allowed to destroy the recovery, still less at taxpayers' expense

No taxpayer money should go into union coffers regardless of political expediency, says our UK Politics Editor Harry Cole.

A sight Brits might want to get used to this year
Harry Cole
On 27 June 2011 10:54

Britain’s trade unions are preparing for a summer long campaign of disruption, risking the economic recovery through their own selfish demands.

What they are fighting for would make most in the private sector wince with jealously, and it seems the government is digging in. The Liberal Democrats, who are no friends of the unions, seem prepared to turn a blind eye as a distinct ratcheting up of the rhetoric between the Conservative-led government and the trade union movement begins.

The unions have long had the Labour Party bent over in a most compromising position --  the Labour wallet sticking out the party’s back pocket just waiting to be snatched back.

When they were in power taxpayers' money was channelled through various means to keep the paymasters happy.

One of the first things the Coalition did upon taking power was to end the absurd “Union Modernisation Fund” that saw a rebate for the money the unions paid to the Labour Party come straight out of government coffers for the development and advancement of the “movement”.

It didn’t take much to see straight through this money washing operation, yet the unions have been fed on the public teat in more subtle ways too. Recent polling has found that over half of the country think it is unacceptable that taxpayer money is spent funding small vested interest groups such as public sector unions.

As it stands there are currently around two and half thousand public sector workers who are paid not to do the front-line service they are employed to do, but instead to work full or part time for their trade union. As the taxpayer is picking up the bill, the subscription fees that the unions raise from their members can then be spent on other activities, such as striking, campaigning or donating to the Labour Party.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much this costs, but a conservative estimate is around 70 million pounds every year.

However, this could all be about to change. Over the weekend, Francis Maude of the Cabinet Office briefed the papers that a ban on this behaviour could be unveiled unless the unions back down on their planned “summer of discontent”.

While of course this is welcome news to those, including myself, who have been campaigning heavily on this issue in recent months, it’s a shame to see such an important issue being used as bait. Such practices should be curtailed regardless of how the unions behave.

By hanging the threat of scrapping the practice over the head of the unions the government has effectively conceded that it is a perk and one that the unions will want to keep. In doing so, they have shown they are more concerned about the politics rather than the principle behind desperately need union reforms.

If you need a reminder of what a union stranglehold can do to a nation, just look at the ongoing Greek tragedy.

If Maude and co at the Cabinet Office are serious about fighting the unions, they will not play politics with the purse strings. In order for a square fight, no taxpayer money should be being used to lobby the government as is the case at the moment.

If the unions want a national infrastructure of public sector organisers, they should pay for it themselves. The government must surely know this, and show some spine instead of using millions of pounds of public money as some sort of Ken Clarke-esque, wishy-washy reward for good behaviour.

Harry Cole is the UK Political Editor for The Commentator. He tweets at @MrHarryCole and is the News Editor for the popular Guido Fawkes blog.

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