Former civil service head Lord Kerslake blasts “demeaning” move to end automatic “check off” of union fees across Whitehall

Lord Kerslake says it is “impossible to see why any fair person would want to remove this very basic service” - and vows to "sing the national anthem" if the government shelves plans to end automatic "check off" of fees from civil servants' pay packets

By Matt Foster

26 Feb 2016

A plan to end the direct “check off” of union fees from public sector workers’ wage packets is a “malevolent absurdity“ which “demeans the government”, former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake has said.

Under plans included in the Trade Union Bill — currently making its way through parliament — all civil servants and staff in the wider public sector who belong to a union will have to switch to direct debits or make other arrangements to pay their fees.

Ministers argue that ending the “outdated practice” will “modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members”, giving employees more control over their subscriptions. But trade unions have said the move is politically motivated and point out that check off is used across the private sector.

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Speaking in a Lords debate on the Bill this week, Lord Kerslake — who stepped down as head of the civil service in 2014 and now sits as a crossbench peer — said it was “impossible” to see the rationale for the changes.

“With all the troubles that we have in the world today, I wonder […] why on a cold Thursday in February we are seriously debating the removal of check-off from public sector employees? 

“Just as it is very hard for any rational person to comprehend why we would not allow secure electronic and workplace balloting for industrial disputes, it is impossible to see why any fair person would want to remove this very basic service provided to public service employees.”

Kerslake said check off imposed “virtually no cost” on the public sector, pointing out that when he had served as permanent secretary in the Department for Communities and Local Government  his head of human resources had told him the cost of providing check off was “literally too small to calculate”.

And he dismissed the argument that direct deduction was an old-fashioned practice.

“We would not ban people from paying by cash for services if that is what they wanted to do, simply because it was outmoded in this electronic age,” he said. “If the argument is that it is outmoded, why do we allow—indeed, encourage—payroll deductions for charitable purposes?”

He added: “The real reason we have this proposal in front of us is […] an unspoken one. The government do not like public sector unions and they want to make life a bit more difficult for them. I think this genuinely demeans the government.”

According to the most recent update from ministers — given just before last year’s general election — eight government departments including HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions — have already informed unions that they intend to end check-off.

PCS, the largest of the civil service unions, believes the plans are specifically designed to “undermine” its “organisation, membership and finances”, and has launched a drive to encourage members to make the switch to direct debit payments.

Kerslake urged peers to back an amendment to the bill seeking to protect check off — and even made a joking reference to David Cameron’s attack on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance at this week’s prime minister’s questions.

“Yesterday we heard a lot about mothers and dress codes,” he said. “I shall say this to the minister: I am wearing a suit, my tie is straight and I will be more than happy to sing the national anthem, or at least the first verse, if the government will think again about this proposal.”

Kerslake has been increasingly vocal on a number of issues since the general election, attacking plans to review Freedom of Information laws and extend the Right to Buy to housing association properties. He is also carrying out a review of the Treasury on behalf of Labour.

The crossbench peer told Civil Service World’s sister title The House magazine earlier this year that he believed the Trade Union Bill, which also includes plans to make it harder for some public sector workers to take strike action demonstrated a “worrying authoritarian streak” from ministers.

And, explaining his outspoken stance on a range of issues, Kerslake told The House: “I decided when I came into the Lords that I would not look to be high profile, but I wouldn’t shy away from saying what I thought about the issues. I didn’t come in thinking ‘I’m going to intervene and be vocal quickly’. But the issues have driven me to speak.” 

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