This briefing explains check-off - a system for deducting trade union subscriptions through payroll - and the related policies of successive governments.Jump to full report >>
"Check-off" is a system under which employers deduct their employees' trade union subscriptions from their wages through the payroll and transfer the money to unions. It became widespread in the 1960s. Check-off procedures often form part of a collective agreement and, as such, the right to have union subscriptions deducted through payroll is typically incorporated into the individual's contract of employment. It can be useful both for trade unions, who are saved the administrative expense of collecting subscriptions individually, and for employers, who are able to monitor union membership.
Successive governments have adopted varying approaches to check-off. Conservative governments have typically sought to limit the practice, either across all employers or, more recently, in the public sector. Labour governments have, by contrast, supported check-off and eased restrictions on its use.
The Conservatives, under John Major, legislated in 1993 to prohibit check-off across all employers unless it was authorised in writing by the employee during the previous three years, thus creating the need for check-off to be re-authorised every three years should employee wish to continue the arrangement. The legislation also required employers to notify employees one month in advance if the subscription amount was set to increase. Labour, under Tony Blair, removed the requirement to re-authorise check-off every three years, and removed the requirement to notify employees in advance of increases, although written consent was still necessary and workers could withdraw from check-off by notifying their employers.
During the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government’s period in office, Ministers attempted to limit the use of check-off in the public sector. This took the form of Cabinet Office guidance and individual departmental policy. It was a source of public disagreement between the Coalition partners prompting the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat, to write to departments opposing moves by Conservative Secretaries of State to end check-off in their departments. In one instance a department – the Department for Communities and Local Government – was prevented from ending check-off by a successful legal challenge.
More recently, David Cameron’s Conservative administration legislated to impose restrictions on the use of check-off in the public sector. The Trade Union Act 2016 created a regulation-making power – not yet exercised - that would enable a Minister to prohibit relevant public sector employers from operating check-off unless their employees have an alternative means of paying (e.g. direct debit) and unions reimburse the administrative costs of operating the scheme.