I have blogged before about what other people have been saying about Labour Party corruption. However, several people have asked me in recent weeks whether we as a new administration have uncovered any more questionable Labour spending decisions that have been hidden from the public. The short answer is that we certainly have and I am happy to share one of them now.
It is well known that Trades Unions are very strong in the local government part of the public sector and that they enjoy a special position in the affections of the Labour Party. Trades Unions provide the bulk of Labour Party funding and I have written about this in the past. Trades Unions also run their own political campaigns during General Elections, usually in support of Labour and opposed to a Conservative Government. Local readers may remember the trades union poster campaign last year on Reading bus shelters depicting an axe and headlined “Tory Cuts”. Such campaigns are very expensive and do not have to be declared as part of Labour’s election expenses. At present the Civic Offices are well covered with expensive glossy leaflets attacking the Government’s argument about the scale of the public debt left by Labour.
What Reading Council Tax payers may be shocked to learn is that for many years the Council under Labour control was paying for local Trades Union officials with our money. Over the last 12 years this has cost Reading people around £1.4m. This cannot be right and the new Conservative/Lib Dem administration of the Council has put a stop to this. Even long serving Conservative and Lib Dem Councillors have been shocked by the scale of public money involved and the fact that Labour secretly subsidised their union brothers and sisters. This was kept secret from the public and Opposition Councillors and it was never visible in the Council’s accounts which are published every year.
Whatever views may be held about Trades Unions funding the Labour Party it cannot be right for the Labour Party to channel scarce Council Tax receipts to fund the unions. If this was not a prejudicial interest what is?
UPDATE: Since I wrote my original article above several more facts have come to light. The total amount of the value of Council support to the Unions may be more than £1.4m and the period covered considerably more than the 8 years I originally wrote. To be fair therefore I have amended the article above to reflect the 12 year period since Reading became a Unitary authority in 1998 when the current “facilities agreement” with the Trades Unions came into force. That is when the funding of three full-time posts started.
Labour’s defence seems to revolve around two arguments. The first is that the agreement was not “secret” and should have been known by Conservative and Lib Dem Councillors. However, no one has been able to point to any meeting or occasion when the current ”facilities agreement” was made public since it was signed in 1998. Since every Lib Dem and all but one Conservative Councillor was elected since 1998 it is hardly surprising that no-one was aware of the funding of full time posts from Council Tax. At the very least the agreement should have been tabled annually for review at the Local Joint Forum on which I used to sit.
The second Labour argument is that by revealing this and attacking the fact that Conservative and Lib Dem Councillors were not made aware of it, I am somehow attacking the Council Officers. Let me be clear, I have always argued that politicians are responsible for what happens in the Council and I do not and never have blamed Council Officers for the actions of the previous administration. My criticism is of the Labour Party who ran Reading for more than 20 years and who have been heavily supported financially by the some of the same Trades Unions that have benefitted from the facilities agreement!
Finally, let me add that there is certainly a role for trades unions and the Council should make some allowance (through time off etc) for their legitimate activities but the umbilical link of many unions to the Labour Party means that they are not politically neutral and in my view full time posts to support union activity should be funded by union members and not from Council Tax.