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Employees given “greater control” over trade union subscriptions

4 min read

06 August 2015

Former editor

In an effort to modernise trade union membership procedures originating from a time when many people didn’t have bank accounts, the government has announced its intention to get rid of the “check off” in public sector organisations.

The “check off” practice sees public sector workers, who are union members, have subscription fees taken directly from salaries. Going forward, it is planned that employees will be able to set up their own direct debit with a chosen trade union – removing the administrative burden for employers and providing better consumer protection.

The plans are contained within the Trade Union Bill, which is setting out to: ensure strike action can only happen after “clear and representative” mandates are secured; improve transparency and oversight of trade unions; and introduce “reasonable notice” for strike action.

New voting laws will mean trade unions need a majority of the membership, rather than majority of vote, to bring about industrial action. Previously, votes for strikes from organisations like RMT have seen small turnouts for votes, meaning only a small majority of the overall membership have firmly indicated a desire to protest.

According to a statement, the move comes after the “successful removal” of “check off” by a number of central government departments such as the Home Office and Ministry of Defence.

Paymaster general Matthew Hancock believes, in the 21st century of direct debits and digital payments, public resources should not be used to support the collection of trade union subscriptions.

“It’s time to get rid of this outdated practice and modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members,” he added. “By ending check off we are bringing greater transparency to employees – making it easier for them to choose whether or not to pay subscriptions and which union to join.”

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The government also revealed the decision to remove “check off” is part of its drive to address “facility time” – namely the taxpayer-funded subsidies provided to trade unions.

In its current guise, some four million public sector workers have fees taken directly from pay. However, this results in a £6.5m taxpayer bill to help. The Conservatives previously tried to bring about the change while in power with the Liberal Democrats, as part of the coalition between 2010 and 2015, but were prevented from doing so.

Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, believes the announcement is “long overdue”.

“It is simply not the business of public sector employers to be processing the union dues of their staff, and it is shocking how many bodies have been providing this service at absolutely no cost to the unions who are benefiting,” he said.

Coming out against the planned new legislation was TUC assistant general secretary Paul Nowak, who stated payroll membership could not be considered “outdated” as it is popular with many of the UK’s “biggest and most successful” private companies.

“The public will see this for what it really is – yet another attack on union members from a government that is determined to rebalance power in the workplace so that workers lose their voice and their rights. And it goes hand-in-hand with new proposals that threaten the right to strike,” Nowak added.

“Instead of going out of their way to poison industrial relations, the government should work positively with workers and their representatives for the good of public services and the economy.”