Government proposed rules that are expected to restrict and reduce trade union duties in the workplace could have “serious consequences” for staff productivity and morale in the NHS, unions have warned.
They said the Trade Union Bill could result in more unresolved disputes in the NHS over issues such as pay and pensions and would damage employment relations if it were to go ahead.
The bill introduces a raft of changes, including those which will make it harder to strike - due to a proposed 50% turnout, plus a requirement for at least a 40% majority of those in favour of going on strike.
“When the NHS is already struggling to recruit and retain enough staff, removing the positive impact of union representation risks having a significant impact on patient safety”
In addition, it proposes rules for capping the amount of time employees can spend carrying out trade union work, known as “facility time”.
The Royal College of Nursing said this proposal was based on an incorrect assumption that there were too many union representatives in the public sector and could have “serious consequences” for staff.
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: “Aside from the financial cost of high staff turnover, when the NHS is already struggling to recruit and retain enough staff, removing the positive impact of union representation risks having a significant impact on patient safety.”
“The health service can ill-afford further damage to staff morale, or to squander even more money on recruitment costs. The trade union bill is bad for staff, employers and most importantly it is bad for patients,” she added.
The rules would not save public money as the government intended, added the union, but could instead cost the NHS more due to potentially higher rates of staff turnover.
Independent research commissioned by the RCN found staff turnover in organisations without union representatives was three times higher than in those with union representatives.
The analysis found that work carried out by trade union representatives in NHS organisations was estimated to be saving the health service at least £100 million a year – which equates to an annual £1 million saving for a large teaching hospital.
The research – carried out by City University’s Cass Business School in London and the University of Warwick – also found that in public sector healthcare organisations trade union officials covered more staff than those in the private sector. This suggested there work was more cost effective.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Midwives said the bill would “fundamentally damage employment relations” and called for it to be rethought.
In its response to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ consultation on the bill it criticised the proposal to remove the ban on employing agency workers to cover the duties of striking workers.
“We believe the Trade Union Bill will fundamentally damage employment relations and make it more difficult to resolve disputes”
It said this could create bad working relations between agency staff and NHS employees and could impact on safety due to agency staff being less familiar with local procedures.
The union also noted the government’s “extreme” new rules on picket lines, which it said would force trade unions to report protest plans to employers two weeks in advance.
RCM director of policy Jon Skewes, said: “We believe the Trade Union Bill will fundamentally damage employment relations and make it more difficult to resolve disputes. Industrial action is a symptom of poor employment relations not the cause.”
He added: “By imposing unnecessary and disproportionate rules the government is attempting to paint striking workers as the villains.
“Politicians should be working to improve employment relations and helping both sides resolve the dispute before it gets to the stage of taking industrial action, rather than shifting the power balance and allowing one side to steamroller across the other.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said: “Trade unions can play a constructive role in maintaining positive industrial relations.
“The changes we are proposing will improve transparency and increase taxpayers’ awareness of spending on facility time in the public sector, and will ensure that spending on facility time is transparent and proportionate.”