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Royles: Ending trade union 'check off' payments may have unintended consequences

Ending trade union deductions through payroll in the public sector came out of the blue. From what I can tell there has been no consultation with employers, no engagement with trade unions, no assessment of what it may mean for employee relations or, more importantly, recent progress in partnership with trade unions.

The reason given for the change is the cost for the taxpayer: an estimated £6 million. However, many I know question this calculation and point out that the taxpayer must also be paying for other deductions such as childcare vouchers, charitable giving, bike to work schemes, lease cars, and other salary sacrifice initiatives. Payroll deductions may have been on a list of employer anxieties, but I am pretty sure that for most this would not have been in the top 50.

Industrial relations and employee relations have changed massively over the last few decades. In the public sector they are almost unrecognisable to what they were a generation ago (in 1979 lost days through strike action were more than 29 million, in 1985 – one year after the miners' strike – it was six million, in 2012 it was 250,000).

The tone of discussion has also changed in many places from one of adversarialism to a more discursive partnership approach. Although tensions have risen in the last year or so, this has been in the context of austerity and public sector pay freezes. Although legally these may be considered 'trade disputes' they are arguably protest measures.

My anxiety – which I know is shared by others – is about the unintended (but in this case entirely foreseeable) consequences. Check-off (payroll deductions) is a light touch management activity, but it does give employers a sense of their union density, particularly when dealing with multiple trade unions. When balloting does take place, check-off allows employers to undertake the SBET (standard British eyeball test) i.e. does it look right in terms of numbers? Should we challenge it? All this will be more difficult if payments are made by direct debit.

But more importantly, what will the reaction be? What will be the cost to us in terms of working? There will of course be a (one-off) cost to the taxpayer in changing the system. In addition there could be a cost to what have largely been positive working relationships. Will we damage the psychological contract between employers and trade unions? Will communication be harder and more strained? When employers need some movement will there be more resistance? Will relationships harden? And will we see more formal and informal action from trade unions? These are important questions that need careful consideration.

This decision coming on the back of the announcement about changes to balloting is bound to change the balance in the culture of our employee relations. The key question is will it be for good or ill?

I would simply ask that before what appears to be simple change in payroll administration is implemented, there is adequate consultation with employers and an appreciation of what we may lose, along with the consequences that will bring. That, in my view, would be the mature approach to understanding a significant part of the public sector employee relations environment.

Dean Royles is director of HR and OD at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust