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MPs decisively defeat "Smokescreen" bill to curb work of union movement's "unsung heroes"
Right wing moves to push for reduced facilities for trade union representatives fell at the first hurdle on Wednesday.
MPs defeated legislation introduced by Tory MP Jesse Norman, with at least 174 of his own party colleagues failing to support him.
His Trade Union Officials (Refund of Pay to Employers) Bill was triggered by a campaign by the right wing TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA).
It said: “Pay for hours worked on behalf of trade unions by trade union officials during hours when they are paid by an employer should be refunded to the employer buy the trade union.”
The Hereford and South Herefordshire MP told the Commons that his Bill was “not about attacking the unions” – inspiring loud jeers from the Labour benches.
He claimed it was a matter of principle, as private organisations should not be subsidised by the state.
“Taxpayers’ money should be spent as far as possible on the frontline of public services.”
Norman relied on the TPA for his claim that 2,840 officials worked for unions when they were paid by the state, with the practice costing £113 million a year.
However former Labour minister and shadow health secretary John Healey hit back, saying the union officials helped improve health and safety and prevented staff taking time off ill and so ultimately saved the state money.
He said he was surprised Norman was bringing the Bill in, as he had a reputation for hard work and intelligent comment.
“But this was a cheap shot speech based on ignorance, ideology and inaccurate briefings by the TaxPayers’ Alliance,” Healey told MPs.
The proposed legislation targeted “the most basic, most benign feature of union work, the day-to-day support for staff at work, by their colleagues who are prepared to volunteer as trade union representatives”.
It was a personal attack on around 200,000 people who were ready to help their colleagues through giving advice, supporting them in grievance procedures and negotiating with employers, which was difficult and demanding work.
Healey said they were unsung heroes, who deserved recognition in the New Years Honours list, and Downing Street receptions for upholding the proud British tradition of volunteering.
“They are the workplace wing of the Prime Minister’s Big Society,” he added.
“Many trade unionists voted Conservative at the last election, too many, and some even voted Liberal Democrat.
“They do not deserve this, and the Bill does not deserve support from any part of this House.”
And Norman failed to muster much support, with his bill attracting just 132 votes and losing by a majority of 79.
Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey had said before the vote that former Barclays investment banker Norman had got his priorities wrong.
“He would be far better off using his taxpayer-funded salary to campaign for an end to the greed and excess in his former profession rather than targeting workers’ access to fairness in the workplace.
“There is no rational reason to target dedicated men and women who spend their days preventing accidents, avoiding tribunals and supporting their colleagues.
“Union representatives benefit workplaces to the tune of £1.1 billion every year. Only the ideologically-driven cannot accept that these arrangements benefit staff and employers alike. Even Jesse Norman’s former employer, Barclays funds its union reps because it understands the benefits they provide to that business.”
RMT General Secretary Bob Crow vowed to fight to defend union rights, noting that responsible employers knew the value of proper facilities and agreements to allow reps to carry out their duties.
The TPA had before the vote linked the alleged subsidy with attempts by unions to “stop necessary restraint in public spending”.
It said after the defeat that it would continue to press ministers to take action, so attention will now switch to whether the coalition brings in legislation.