City spends £500k a year supporting union work

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City chiefs have been urged to investigate new figures that show nearly £500,000 of taxpayers’ money is spent every year supporting trade union officials representing council workers in Edinburgh.

Conservative councillor Gordon Buchan has called for a probe by council chief executive Sue Bruce after figures showed that giving staff time off work for union duties cost £473,965 in 2009/10.

The figure in Edinburgh is more than double the amount that Glasgow City Council said it costs.

Cllr Buchan has now called for Mrs Bruce to detail why the figure is so high.

He said: “It is a lot of money for groups that collect subscriptions from members. I think people will be very interested if there is a cost to the taxpayer.

“In these tough times we need to know where our money is going.”

He has now lodged a motion for next week’s meeting of the full council asking for an explanation of where the figure comes from.

Emma Boon, campaigns director at the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “This is paid time off that union representatives get from public sector jobs to do union work. The taxpayer is paying for that time but they are not using that time for anything other than organising strikes. If they want to have time off they can negotiate that but it is a very different thing to say that the council should be paying for that.”

At the city council, the equivalent of 17.5 full-time workers are permanently dedicated to doing union work. Unison, the biggest union on the city council, currently has three senior officials on full-time secondment from the city council, although that is due to reduce to two next week.

But branch president John Stevenson, also a social work manager, said: “It is a legal issue and it is a good employer’s responsibility to provide facility time for trade unions. This negotiation and consultation reduced conflict. Whenever you see conflict in the media, there are 20 other times that it is avoided by this work.”

Councillor Phil Wheeler, the city’s finance leader, said: “The council is legally obliged to allow staff paid time for union duties and this is important for supporting the extensive consultation and other partnership work that we do with them. However, it is also important to balance this against other factors and I await confirmation of the cost to the council.”

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