Sunday, February 01, 2015

Seeing through "transparency"

Tomorrow is the last date by which local authorities must publish certain data as specified in the Local Government Transparency Code.

"Transparency" is one of those words (like "modern" or "flexibility") which its users often intend to be laden with positive value judgments.

Who, after all, could be opposed to transparency?

(I suggest purchasers of toilet doors or bathroom windows?)

"Transparency" in Coalition Britain is all about a series of two way mirrors - the private sector must be allowed to see into the public sector‎ - but if we stare back we see only ourselves.

Local authorities are required to publish all manner of information - but the private corporations which rake in profits from an ever increasing share of public expenditure are not.

Whilst it is impossible to disagree that we should know about all those whom our local authorities pay more than one hundred thousand pounds a year (a sum beyond the maximum anyone could ever really need) - a genuine believer in freedom of information would think that all data on earnings of the high paid (in the private as well as the public sector) should be equally accessible. That's not our Government's view.

Having established the principle that local authorities (already the part of the public sector to whose information the public had the greatest access) should publish more information, last year the Government required that - from tomorrow - they publish information about trade union "facility time."

‎The purpose of this requirement is - appropriately enough - quite transparent. 

The Coalition Government wants to bludgeon ever more local authorities into the same single-minded drive to reduce time spent on trade union duties‎ that has been embarked upon in some Government departments.

Having failed to persuade enough local authorities to join their crusade against workplace trade unionism through force of argument, the Government is hoping that the most reactionary elements of public opinion, whipped up by the wannabe Tory MPs of the so-called "Taxpayers Alliance" will provide some helpful "argument of force."

The fact that a Tory/Lib-Dem Government has to circumvent even authorities controlled by their own parties in pursuit of this purely ideological goal demonstrates clearly that it has nothing to do with improving public services, or employee relations, or even with saving money.

The Government's motives are themselves transparent. First, they hope to find a stick with which to beat some Labour authorities (perhaps with the added bonus of provoking some Labour-union dissension). Secondly, they want to weaken and disrupt workplace trade union organisation as an end in itself (and regardless of the consequences for public services, employee relations or even local authority budgets).

The Coalition can find many allies in this cause from the ranks of simple-minded conservatives, for whom the conclusion of the Donovan Commission that shop stewards were "lubricants" rather than "irritants" in industrial relations always seemed like Bolshevism. 

The idea that a worker might spend the whole of their working week representing their colleagues rather than doing "their job" is anathema to members of a Government who represent the interests of those who have never had, or ever needed, such a job. To the Eric Pickles of this world it seems like Communism that people such as your blogger (a "full-time" lay trade union Branch Secretary) should exist.

In fact, the concentration of trade union duties in the hands of a smaller number of elected representatives, therefore spending a larger proportion of their time on such duties, can be as much in the interests of sensible employers as of the workers and their trade union.

Unless we are going to abandon all hope that workers should have an expectation of dignity and justice in the workplace we need to retain at least the minimal rights we have at present. These include the right to time off work for our elected representatives to carry out their trade union duties. The sensible management of such time off includes full and part-time release for senior elected representatives whose duties are such that they would otherwise spend a great deal of their time asking for such time off on a daily basis.

‎The idea that trade union representatives should have reasonable paid time off work was commonplace when we - trade unions - were commonplace. As we have retreated so the popular support for such common sense has retreated.

A hostile Government is trying to mobilise right-wing populism against us under the banner of "transparency".

All that is transparent here is their hostility to the only movement which could prevent them from following through their all-out assault upon our welfare state and civil liberties.

We need a change of Government, but we also need a change of approach from the leadership of our trade unions if we are to confront the hostility to our very existence of which this aspect of the "Local Government Transparency Code" is merely a recent expression.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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