14 February 2012 2:34 PM

A broken-hearted Coalition?

Kudos to Unison, seizing on Valentine's Day to keep up pressure on the Government over Andrew Lansley's controversial NHS changes.

The union put on a picture stunt earlier on, with 'David Cameron' and 'Nick Clegg' holding a broken heart.

Unison's "heartfelt" plea was "not to break our hearts by breaking our NHS".

But with the Commons in recess, senior Coalition figures may be wondering if the love has dropped out of their relationship.

Not only was Lib-Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes calling for Lansley's head on Sunday, but the welfare reforms are back in the Lords and expected to suffer fresh defeats (ping pong has started). Also in the mix are Budget discussions, with the Chancellor preparing his set piece for next month.

On that note, James Forsyth had a great titbit in the Mail on Sunday - the Quad of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Cameron were due to have a meeting tonight after unexpectedly finding their diaries clear. But there was an obvious reason, and once wives found out some quick rescheduling took place.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

20 January 2012 10:49 AM

Crow's anger on lobbyist list

Ministers are publishing their long-awaited plans for a register of lobbyists today - a bid to crackdown on what David Cameron described as "the next big scandal waiting to happen".

It looks set to cast the net fairly wide, possibly bringing trade unions and big charities within its remit.

While the TUC are broadly supportive, Tube union boss Bob Crow is rather less so.

In brilliantly colourful language, he said: "The idea that trade unions, representing millions of workers up and down the country, should be bracketed in with the chancers and shmoozers from the shadowy world of political lobbying is a gross insult to men and women fighting for a fair deal in the workplace.

"This is just another blatant ConDem attack on the trade union movement and shows complete and utter contempt for the role we play in protecting working people from the savagery of casino capitalism."

UPDATE: PRCA, the professional body for public affairs consultancies, have hit back at Bob Crow.
“Bob Crow’s plea for trade unions to receive special favours is self-interest at its most naked form," chief executive Francis Ingham said.

"Just as the CBI employs a whole floor of lobbyists, so too the TUC has a significant lobbying operation. When trade union employees meet ministers and civil servants and try to influence legislation, they are lobbyists. It is that simple, and for a mandatory register to work, it must cover charities, business groups, think tanks, lawyers and yes, trade unions too.”

Incidentally, Labour are far from impressed with the proposals which look to have a fair few shortcomings in them at the moment (not least the lack of a statutory code of conduct).

Jon Trickett had this to say of the document: "It is so full of loopholes it makes you wonder whether it's worth doing...

"It is a massively open barn door which people can drive several coach and horses through.

"It's extremely weak and very disappointing and unless it is tightened up then it leaves the scope for further scandals to emerge in future."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

17 January 2012 1:54 PM

Miliband's union dilemma

Ed Miliband has been unrepentant this morning in defending himself from union criticism.

He insists he is "right" to say Labour can't promise to reverse Government spending cuts - including going along with the public sector pay freeze.

The latter point has caused most anger among the brothers. First Unite's Len McCluskey warned the party was on the road to electoral disaster and even "destruction" with its reversion to "discredited Blairism", then GMB head Paul Kenny gave credence to the warning by threatening to sever his union's ties with the party in a letter seen by the Standard.

If GMB walked away, which could only happen if its members approved, the central Labour Party would lose more than £1 million of funding a year. If Unite followed suit, Miliband would goodbye to a further £4 million - plunging the party into financial ruin.

But here's the dilemma for Miliband - if he faces down the brothers who delivered him the leadership, it will allow him to shake off the "Red Ed" tag and really stamp his leadership on the party. It's a tactic which worked so well for Tony Blair, who gambled the farm on scrapping Clause IV and won.

Judging by the reaction of people around Miliband, they are happy for their man to stick publicly to his guns and are bullish about the chances of unions walking away.

"They will stand up for their members, we will stand up for the majority of people in this country," one source said.

A shadow cabinet minister privately acknowledged that unions withdrawing their funding would be a "disaster" - not just for Labour but for the unions too. "They'd never carry it with their members," the frontbencher predicted.

They're probably right, and it might not come to that in any case. But after a start to the year which has seen miserable poll ratings, a race row sparked by Diane Abbott and outspoken criticism from his former guru (among others), I'm sure Miliband could have done without this latest set of negative headlines.

For the record, here's the full text of the letter sent by GMB general secretary Paul Kenny to senior officers at the union yesterday.

Dear colleagues
The speech Ed Balls made on Saturday may have a profound impact on our relationship with the Labour Party.
I have turned down dozens of offers to comment on TV, Radio and in the Press.
Unite and Unison have adopted similar positions. I have spoken to Ed Milliband and Ed Balls to ensure they were aware of how wrong I think the policy they are now following is.
It is now time for careful consideration and thought before the wider discussion begin on the long term implications this new stance by the Party has on GMB affiliation.
It will be a fundamental requirement that the CEC and Congress determine our way forward after proper debate.
I will update everyone as events unfold but I have to say this is the most serious mistake they could have made and the Tories must be rubbing their hands with glee.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse 

08 December 2011 3:40 PM

Clegg's olive branch to strikers

While Andrew Lansley was offering a new deal on health sector pension reform but sparking fresh anger from the unions, Nick Clegg has been out been out trying to smooth tensions with the public sector.

His comments are significant because they come in the aftermath of last week's pension strike - branded a "damp squib" by David Cameron - and George Osborne's fresh round of austerity which will hit public servants hard.

The Lib-Dem Deputy PM acknowledged public sector workers "bristle" at talk of paring back the public sector, and insisted rebalancing the economy was not "code for cutting them adrift".

Warning against re-opening old divisions, he said: "Many of our public sector workers are making sacrifices, and I am hugely grateful for it. And I am grateful to the people making sacrifices in the private sector too.

"And what will hurt both groups is if we now allow this debate to become polarised - as if our dilemma is helping the public sector versus the private sector; the North versus the South. Picking industry or picking banking.

"Because if we play into these bygone caricatures of the left and the right, if we allow our society to fracture into these camps, that is the surest way to drag the UK back to the 1980s."

I suspect there is a dual message here: one for the public sector, to say the LibDems feel their pain. And one for Tory Coalition colleagues, to say lay off the tough talk.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

15 September 2011 3:27 PM

Danny admits we are better off outside the euro

Breaking news ... Danny Alexander, the former campaign chief for Britain in Europe, has admitted that it's a good thing he didn't win the Battle of Sterling.

He 'fessed up in an interview with the Evening Standard, when asked if it was lucky that the pro-euro campaign did not prevail.

"I think there is no doubt at all that the flexibilities we have, not being part of the euro, have been very helpful to the UK in dealing with the economic crisis we've had," he said.

Asked if that was politico-speak for admitting he was wrong, DA responded: "Who knows how it would have un-folded if things had worked out differently. I'm still a very firm believer that our national interest lies as a wholehearted member of the EU engaging positively to get the best for Britain. That's what always motivated me and that has not changed one iota."  He did not, however, say he still wants to join the euro.

There are lots of other good angles in the interview with this unassuming Lib Deb star.  He tells the unions that the Government is making contingency plans to defeat the strikes; urges his party to stand firm with the austerity policies and the Coalition; attacks Boris Johnson over the 50p rate and rebuffs the Tory Right on repatriation of powers.

But I like his description of why being brought up on a remote island (Colonsay, pop. 110) made him the man he is today.


Joe Murphy

follow me  on Twitter  .... @JoeMurphyLondon




12 September 2011 2:22 PM

With brothers like these...

It will be interesting to see what kind of a reception Ed Miliband gets when he addresses the TUC tomorrow.

The brothers have been sabre-rattling hard about possible strike action over pensions reform this autumn, and a quick look at the agenda reveals they aren't impressed with a lack of support from Labour.

Motion 29, which will be debated on Wednesday and has been tabled by Mark Serwotka's PCS union (which has already called another strike for November), reads: "Congress expresses its concern at the pathetic response (my emphasis) of the Labour leadership and instructs the TUC General Council to press for support for future action in defence of the agreement signed with the last Labour government."

Interestingly, it comes at the same time as Ed is facing fresh pressure to overhaul his party's links with the unions.

In an article timed for maximum effect, senior academics from the University of Bristol argue that union intervention in Ed's leadership victory was so decisive that it calls into question the "legitimacy of the electoral process".

Richard Jobson and Mark Wickham-Jones also say it "undermines Ed Miliband's authority as leader of the party", and was effectively a return to the era of the block vote.

The case for reform is now "unanswerable", they argue - just as Ed is putting the finishing touches to any ideas he wants to set out at his own conference later this month.

I'm not sure the brothers will like that.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

08 September 2011 3:20 PM

Towards a winter of discontent

The civil service PCS union, which went on strike with teachers and lecturers in June, has announced plans for another walkout later this year.

The news came on the same day that two other unions, Prospect and FDA, threatened industrial action in the autumn as well.

It is a clear sign that the negotiations on the Government's public sector pension reforms (pay more, work longer) - the latest round of which take place today - are not going well from the organised workers' point of view.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber told me as much in a pre-congress interview as he warned that strikes were likely.

"At the moment it’s an extraordinarily difficult situation where we are negotiating in good faith to see what the possibilities might be but there has been no indication from the Government of a real willingness to step back from these changes, and at the moment the course they are set on is apparently irrevocably committed to forcing these things through," he said.

Asked if that would lead inevitably to more industrial action, he went on: "I think there is a very real prospect that other unions will feel they have to respond in that way to try to persuade the Government to take a more reasonable approach."

Much of the bitterness is centred on the background to the pension reforms. With public servants facing a wage freeze and job cuts, asking them to pay more is seen as a "tax" on state-paid workers. Mr Barber was also critical of the Government's "whack" approach - just announcing changes without any consultation.

Add in to that the feeling that ministers are not prepared to budge, and it's a pretty volatile cocktail.

Mr Barber hates the phrase "winter of discontent", but we could yet be heading that way.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

23 June 2011 1:03 PM

Gove: heads' "duty" to keep strike-hit schools open

Many parents will back the letter sent by Michael Gove to headteachers today telling them they have a "moral duty" to keep schools open on strike days.

The Education Secretary wants heads to draw up emergency plans to stop school closures causing havoc for millions of families when teachers walk out on June 30 as expected.

Appealing over the heads of union bosses, he said: "My view is that we all have a strong moral duty to pupils and parents to keep schools open."

He branded the threatened industrial action as "not justified" as talks are ongoing between the Government and unions in the dispute over public sector pensions.

Mr Gove has the interest of pupils at heart but the Government also wants the public on its side as it heads into a potential wave of strikes this summer.

 Nicholas Cecil



20 June 2011 12:08 PM

Tough talk on pensions

As if the looming strike over public sector pension reform wasn't headache enough for the Government, plans to equalise the state pension age are now causing outrage.

MPs are demanding changes to plans which could see 500,000 women forced to work longer, particularly to help the 33,000 facing an additional two years of toil before they hit the garden (or the cruise ships).

Iain Duncan Smith is adamant the Government will stick to its plans, as is Number 10. But when pressed there appears to be a little flexibility - sources point out the Pensions Bill is going through the Commons where there are sure to be amendments put forward by backbenchers. "Obviously we recognise there is backbench concern," said a source close to IDS.

The likelihood is that some way will be found to reduce the impact on the hardest hit but only if it doesn't cost the Treasury too much money. Big brains will be sitting down to work out how that can be done, whether among MPs, campaigners or Whitehall.

Meanwhile the row over public sector pension reforms, and the likelihood of crunch talks breaking down, just keeps escalating. Negotiations are due to take place next Monday but some unions are threatening to walk away after Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander went public with the Government's plans on Friday.

Today Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of Unite, had some harsh words for the man known as Beaker. She said his intervention had left ordinary workers "completely confused", telling the Standard: “It doesn’t matter what you think about the debate around public sector pensions, they deserve better than negotiation by megaphone.
“I do think it is inhumane just to breach the normal protocol of negotiation in the way that Danny did, in particular since he says it was because the Government wanted to protect the low paid.”

Ms Cartmail says Unite won't walk away from talks if talks are going to take place. But she added: “We are looking for a commitment to serious and mature fact-based negotiations. We do not want to be trading ideological points - we should be beyond that.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

17 June 2011 1:46 PM

Bob Crow's hidden subsidy

Here's an amazing letter that Esher Tory MP Dominic Raab has winkled out of Transport for London usuing FOI.

It reveals the astonishing size of the hidden subsidy to the RMT and other trade unions, money coming from our taxes and soaring ticket prices.

Here's the highlights: TfL employs 371 people, whose salaries total £13.9 million, who carry out trade union duties in company time at our expense. Some 31 work full time for the union - that is to say, we pay their salaries but they devote their time to union matters - at a cost of £879,000.

In other words, we are paying higher fares to fatten the very union that is threatening to disrupt Wimbledon and bugger up our journeys to work.

A bit of extra detail that is not in the letter.  Around 270 of the employees (ie, the  majority) belong to Bob Crow's RMT rather than the other three big unions at TfL.

Let's be fair. Much of what trade unions do is excellent and is useful to employers as well as the union.

But not all. I am remembering the drunken, foul-mouthed and intimidating RMT bully-boys I met on a train home from some "conference" or junket. I wonder if they were on full pay at the time.

Here's what Dominic Raab says:

“With damaging strikes looming, the majority of Londoners will be shocked to learn that commuters and taxpayers are paying millions each year to fund union activity on the underground.”

A TfL spokesperson says:

“From our total workforce of around 24,000 staff, 371 staff are part-time and 31 are full-time trade union representatives.  Part-time representatives balance their trade union duties with their role at TfL.   The number of trade union representatives at TfL is in accordance with ACAS guidelines, our agreements with the trades unions and legislation.  Trade union representatives can play an important role in our employee relations particularly at times of organisational change.”

And, finally, here is the letter from TfL to Raab.

Dear Mr Raab
TfL Ref: FOI-0185-1112
Thank you for your letter received by Transport for London (TfL) on 18 May 2011 asking for information relating to the union activities of TfL staff members.
Your request has been considered under the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and TfL’s information access policy. I can confirm that TfL holds the information you require. You asked:
1.    How many staff employed by Transport for London are allowed to devote a proportion of their time at work to trade union activities?
TfL permits release for trade union representatives in accordance with legislation, ACAS guidelines and our agreements with the trade unions. Release for trade union activities is unpaid and therefore employees may take annual leave or unpaid leave to undertake such activities.  It is therefore assumed that you are referring to trade union duties which, subject to certain conditions, allow for paid release.  In accordance with legislation, ACAS guidelines and our agreements, any release must be reasonable and meet the appropriate criteria before release is granted.  Approximately 24,000 staff are employed by TfL and its subsidiaries and 371 of these may spend a proportion of their time on trade union duties.
2.    What is the total salary cost of those staff?
The total salary cost of those staff is £13.9m per annum.
3.    How many staff employed by Transport for London are full-time trade union representatives?
There are 31 members of staff that are full-time trade union representatives.
4.    What is the total salary cost of those staff?
The total salary cost of those staff is £879,398 per annum.
5.    How many of the staff identified by questions (1) and (3) earn more than £25,900/year?
As of 16 June 2011 there are 357 members of staff identified in questions 1 and 3 that earn more than £25,900 per annum.
If this is not the information you are looking for, or if you are unable to access it for some reason, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Please see the attached information sheet for details of your right to appeal as well as information on copyright and what to do if you would like to re-use any of the information we have disclosed.
Yours sincerely
FOI Case Officer
FOI Case Management Team
Corporate Governance Directorate
General Counsel
Transport for London


MPs' pensions in the crosshairs

While Danny Alexander was setting out details of the public sector pensions shake-up this morning (and angering union bosses in the process), he had a stark message for his Commons colleagues.

"These changes will have to apply to MPs' pensions too, of course, in terms of contribution increases and so on," he said.

At first this sounded like the same regime would be applied, but that seems unlikely - Lord Hutton specifically did not look at MPs' generous pensions as part of his study into the issue.

Danny later said he did not know how much more MPs would have to pay towards their retirement but added: "I suspect it will be significant."

Reforms to the Commons pension scheme is currently delayed, inviting a charge of "do as I say, not as I do". The point was not lost on Lord Hutton, who was asked if taking the axe to public sector pensions might have been more politically acceptable if MPs had done it to their own first.

"I think a lot of people would say yes to that," he told Sky News.

"It is clear that the MPs' pension scheme is going to have to change and I hope that will also persuade people that there is not one rule for the MPs and a different rule for everyone else."

But as Danny also pointed out, linking MPs' retirement age to the state pension age is somewhat futile - it all rests in the hands of the voters.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse