Trade Union Act: public sector implications

The Trade Union Act received Royal Assent in May 2016. In this briefing we look at the measures affecting trade union activities and check off arrangements in the public sector.

The Trade Union Act received Royal Assent in May 2016. In this briefing we look at the measures affecting trade union activities and check off arrangements in the public sector.


In this briefing we look at measures in the Act which apply primarily to public sector employers. The Act also makes significant changes to law of industrial action which are covered in a separate briefing.

The precise definition of the public sector for these purposes is left to secondary legislation, but it seems that it will be limited to the public sector in the narrow sense: for example central and local government, the NHS and state-funded schools. However it is possible that the regulations will extend these requirements to some private sector organisations delivering publically funded services.

At the time of writing it is not known when the relevant provisions of the Act (and the necessary regulations setting out the more detailed requirements) will be brought into force.

Facility time

Public sector employers will be required to publish information about the facilities accorded to union officials. These will include the number of officials, the amount of paid time spent on union activities and the percentage of the wage bill spent paying for this. The detailed requirements will be set out in regulations.

Ministers will be given reserve powers, which among other things will enable them to limit the amount of money spent by public sector employers in this way. However there are a number of restrictions in the Act about how these powers can be exercised. These include a requirement to serve a warning notice giving the relevant employer a minimum of a year to address the concerns raised in the notice. Reserve powers cannot not in any event be exercised sooner than three years after the relevant regulations have been brought into force.

New rules on check-off arrangements

The Government originally brought forward a provision in the Bill which would have banned check off arrangements entirely in the public sector. As a result of opposition amendments the Act now provides that public sector employers may continue to operate check-off systems to collect union dues as long as two conditions are fulfilled.

Firstly, affected workers must have the option to pay their trade union subscriptions by another means. Secondly, arrangements must have been made for the union to make a reasonable payment to the employer in respect of its operation of the check-off system.

Political funds

Public sector employers may also be interested in the new rules in the Act about political funds.

Currently when a union sets up a political fund members have the right to opt out. This has been the case since 1913, with the exception of the period between 1927 and 1946 when opting in was required. For historical reasons opting in is also required in Northern Ireland.

The Act provides for the re-introduction of opting in before a union can require a member to contribute to a political fund. However transitional arrangements mean that where a political fund has already been established, this requirement will only apply to new union members after a transitional period (of at least a year) to be stipulated in the enabling regulations.

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