Accusations of a 'secret subsidy' given to local Trade Unions under the previous Labour administration have rocked the local political scene: according to Conservative Cllr Richard Willis £1.4m was provided over an eight-to-twelve year period.
Labour's leader on RBC, Cllr Jo Lovelock struck back calling her opponent's criticisms 'hysterical nonsense' used to justify their 'politically-driven cuts'.
Labour explained the money paid for three officials (one each from Unison, Unite and the NUT) through a standard 'facilities agreement'. They are given titles of Staff Side Secretary, Joint Shop Stewards Secretary and Education and Community Panel Secretary. The current post-holders are Angela Williams, Stan Cooke and Rob Ketley.
And Southcote's Cllr John Ennis pens a lengthy rant in defence of union funding, calling the tory claims 'ideological', 'reactionary' and 'fantasy'. He also repeats the point that it is important to "recognise the role of the Trades Unions in good staffing relations and service delivery."
In a separate piece against the 'obsessive' allegations Cllr Ennis switches seamlessly from restraint to refusnik, stating,
"While there may be a legitimate debate about the nature and quantum of facility time it is a massive stretch to suggest this is in any way ‘corrupt’. The attack is shameful – 100% spin and 100% malicious,"before completely avoiding the very debate he acknowledges. He suggests the story is nothing more than part of 'a co-ordinated campaign' to discredit his party ahead of local elections, which would result in effective 'de-recognition' of unions by Reading Borough Council.
However the coalition's Lead Councillor for Sustainability and the Environment, Cllr Warren Swaine pointed out that the costs are not itemised in any council documents or on it's website. He states union activities for council employees are already funded through normal working contracts and the public funding for 'facilitation' is extra - indeed, nationwide the public sector provided direct payments of £18.3m to unions in 2009/10 in addition to an estimated £67.5m staff time.
The LibDem ex-union rep follows this up by explaining how these same union officials failed their members by refusing to reach agreement on equal pay claims for women under the Labour administration even though they are on the same side. This delay has inflated the eventual sum involved in settling back-dated compensation claims just as purse-strings are tightening, adding a new 'toxic time-bomb' component to budget pressures. And union leaders did it all the while accepting financial support from their political confederates who allowed the problematic situation to build up in the first place - which he says does make it tantamount to a political 'bribe'.
Unison regional officer Kelvin Aubrey responded that almost 100 cases of equal pay claims against RBC are being brought to employment tribunals this week, and used this fact to rubbish arguments that they weren't fighting for workers rights. However it is perhaps convenient that Reading Post's Linda Fort doesn't ask how the timing impacts upon negotiating tactics.
The evidence was reliable enough to be raised during parliament's primetime PMQ's by Reading West tory Alok Sharma MP, who asked the pertinent question,
"Does the Prime Minister agree with me that this is an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money and that full-time union officials should be paid for by union subscriptions?"
Mr Sharma argued that councils are facing the choice whether to protect frontline services or to fund union representatives whose job it is to protect frontline services.
BBC South political editor, Peter Henley takes up the baton, investigating the claims of each side.
He notes it is an odd claim by Conservatives that these costs were hidden from them, as they took seats on the committees which gave approval, even if the decisions weren't recorded in official minutes. He also concludes Labour haven't adequately responded to claims they were 'siphoning' the cash given to paid-for officials.
Meanwhile Reading East Conservative Rob Wilson MP avoids commenting on the subject, getting round the controversy by running a poll on his website (it's still live, so go and vote).
Currently (as of 3/2/11) 83.3% of respondents say union members should pay for their representatives, and only 16.7% say this is the responsibility of the taxpayer.
Elsewhere LibDem Cllr Gareth Epps explains his separate reasons for resigning membership of his Trade Union.
Oranjepan says: Political funding is a notoriously muddy area, but given Labour's direct affiliation with these trade unions they've left themselves wide open to accusations that tax-payers are supporting unlegitimated partisan activity at odds with the wider public interest.
Unions will only remove this stain from their reputation by being held accountable to the same standards expected of other council managers. This could easily involve adding the same political restrictions as a condition of their employment and requiring proof of how they spend their time - if they are to be employed by councils, then they should not be exempt from normal council practice.
Additionally, we notice Reading's Trade Unions have recently begun publishing various blogs to promote their political campaigns in tandem with Labour members. This blog at least thinks it would be more in-keeping with their 'all-together' slogan if we could read more about how they actually help us, rather than just about how we can help them.