Welcome to my Blog

I am a semi-retired former Scottish trade union policy wonk, now working on a range of projects. All views are my own, not any of the organisations I work with. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Facility time for workplace union representatives

Today’s Scotsman is running the latest instalment in a series of attacks on trade union facility time, with a focus on the public sector. It follows on from similar stories in the Telegraph, Daily Mail etc and a range of Freedom of Information requests from the so called Tax Payers Alliance. In fairness to the Scotsman, today's article is at least a more balanced presentation of the issue.

The ConDem coalition has not as yet announced a detailed attack on facility time as part of their broader undermining of employment rights (see my blog post last week on fairness in employment). However, another shadowy right wing group the Trade Union Reform Campaign, set up by Tory MP Aidan Burley, has denounced facility time in the public sector as a “public subsidy” of unions. The Prime Minister endorsed the attack on facility time in the House of Commons after the November 30 strike, saying, “I don’t think that is right and we are going to put that to an end.” Francis Maude has announced a review of facility time in the civil service.

The last UK Labour Government conducted a review of facility time and published a series of recommendations including positive examples of the effective role of workplace representatives. This led to a revised ACAS Code of Practice in January 2010. So the law and practice has been recently reviewed. The arrangements were launched with support right across the public and private sectors, as well from trade unions and employer organisations.

The TUC has produced a rebuttal to the latest attacks in their publication The Facts about Facility Time. Some key statistics include:

• Overall productivity gains worth between £4bn to 12bn to the UK economy;

• Savings of at least £19 million as a result of reducing dismissals;

• Savings to employers of between £82m - £143m in recruitment by reducing early exits.

• UK GDP value of the work of ULRs in encouraging training is estimated at £6 billion.

UNISON has also produced a guide to facility time. This sets out the statutory entitlements and the key service group agreements as well an explanation of what facility times is used for.
Local reps help to sort out problems before they become serious. Reps with sufficient time will be able to tackle grievances or disputes at a local level before they mushroom. This will often save time and money by preventing the need for cases to go to a higher level of management or Employment Tribunal.

Union reps make a big contribution to the management of change. Large scale reorganisation, major new agreements or changes to legislation put big burdens on HR departments. Working with a team of skilled union reps can ease the workload and improve the results. Union reps can facilitate change by explaining the procedure, supporting members and ensuring that the process is carried out correctly. Facility time assists the employer in fulfilling their legal responsibilities towards employees; providing support and representation to individuals and as a mechanism

Most employer organisations are on record as supporting the role of the workplace representative and appropriate facility time. But that won’t stop ideology getting in the way of the facts.

PS. The Morning Star has a report this morning (25 January) on the Tory Trade Union Reform Group meeting with Eric Pickles. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Fairness in Employment?

The Prime Minister is making a big play of his 'fairness' agenda at present. So let's see how far his concept of fairness stretches into employment rights.

The first major attack, to be implemented this April, is on the Employment Tribunal system. The qualifying period for unfair dismissal is to be lengthened from one year to two. The next proposal is to charge workers to access Employment Tribunals as much as £1,250 for a full hearing, more if the claim exceeds £30,000. There are also a number of procedural changes proposed including new Pre-Claim Conciliation arrangements, wider powers for Employment Judges to strike out claims, higher cost orders and reducing the role of lay Tribunal members.

Other attacks on employment rights include:
  • Taking away legal advice safeguards in compromise agreements
  • A 'Rapid Resolution Scheme' for straightforward claims
  • Introduction of 'protected conversations' - a licence to bully employees.
  • A 'compensated no-fault' dismissal scheme for smaller firms together with wider reforms to make it easier to dismiss by reducing procedural safeguards.
  • Reducing the consultation period on collective redundancies and weakening consultation rights, particularly for trade unions.
  • Similar proposals to weaken TUPE provisions.
The UK Government also consulted on family-friendly rights earlier last year. That proposed a range of changes, in fairness several positive, to extend the right to request flexible working, parental leave for fathers to attend antenatal appointments, carry over and buying out annual leave and powers for ETs to order pay equality audits in limited circumstances. However, we are still awaiting a government response and the suspicion is that these modest changes will be spun to sweeten the major attacks on workers rights.

Pension auto-enrolment was supposed to start this year, but the government has announced a delay for employers with fewer than 3,000 employees. The gradual increase in employer pension contributions is also to be delayed. These measures are aimed at creating a pensions saving culture for those workers excluded from schemes by employers who are happy to have the taxpayer subsidise their responsibilities. While at the same time the same bosses boost their own massive pensions.

I have commented earlier on changes to health and safety law. Barely a day goes by without a report of an industrial accident or illness, often with tragic consequences. Grayrigg and this week's cruise ship disaster should remind us that health and safety is probably the most important protection workers and their families have. We did not vote to die at work.

While some of the proposals are presented as simplifying the system, in reality they mostly have the aim of reducing workers rights, making it easier for unscrupulous employers to sack staff. As always it will be low paid workers who suffer most, primarily through charging for access to justice. The government's arguments about rising claims and cost simply don't stack up. If you strip out the multiple equal pay cases the number of ET applications are falling. Far from inhibiting new businesses the UK already has some of the weakest employment legislation in the world. A World Bank study confirmed that the UK is the third easiest place to start and run a company after Hong Kong and New Zealand.  The Chair of the Independent Tribunals council said the suggested ET changes would "bring little benefit to employers or to the tribunal system while having a disproportionate and chilling effect on employees."

Many will rightly see these attacks as a return to the Thatcher era. A key feature of that period was the increasing reliance on EU employment standards. There are a wide range of employment law proposals at various stages of the EU legislative process. They include revisions to the Working Time and Posted Workers Directives, pensions, migrant workers rights, pregnant workers, equal pay and carers leave. Given the current political balance in the EU it may be difficult to make progress on many of these. However, EU law may again be an important safeguard for British workers. 
There may also be unforeseen consequences. Cutting unfair dismissal rights may mean a switch to claims based on other rights that don't have a qualifying period. These claims are often more complex and time consuming for tribunals. An increase in cases to the civil courts is also a possibility. It could also lead to a change in approach from trade unions. If there is no effective legal redress then industrial action becomes the only alternative. Some of us can remember the days when disputes around unfair dismissal were much more common than today. Even in unorganised workplaces, the absence of lawful solutions can lead to other forms of protest. 

The government also fails to see the obvious economic consequences. Insecure workers do not take out mortgages or make larger purchases. This drives down demand exacerbating the already serious consequences austerity measures are having on growth. As Brendan Barber pointed out good employers have little to fear from tribunal claims; "if firms treated their staff fairly, few would ever find themselves taken to court." This is another consequence of the attack on workers rights. It creates a race to the bottom were the bad employers drag the good ones down to the sewer.

Underlying this issue is a debate on the sort of UK we want to live in. Do we want the UK to become a low wage, insecure place to work? Driving down living standards for the many, while  the rich and powerful exploit a compliant workforce. If that's Cameron's definition of 'fairness', he can keep it.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The year ahead

Happy New Year! Although I am probably going to describe a year ahead that looks far from happy. I am back at work after a decent break and thinking about the year ahead as I trundle home on a train from London.

Of course there are a number of positive things I will wish for in 2012. Fulham winning the Premier League and FA Cup; Lancashire retaining the County Championship; keeping to my post- Xmas diet; lowering my golf handicap and reading more of the growing pile of books on the ‘to read’ shelf or stacking up on the Kindle.

However, reality intervenes and I need to focus on the more likely challenges in the year ahead.

On the bargaining front it looks like another difficult year. Pay will need to return to the top of the agenda as the pay freeze continues to undermine standards of living. Public service reform will also be a big issue this year with health and social care integration, police and fire reorganisation some of the early challenges. Public bodies will try and meet ever diminishing budgets by constantly reorganising in the search for often illusory efficiency savings. We also need to sort out how we approach procurement in Scotland. 2011 wasn’t a good year for well thought out procurement and although we had a lot of success in stopping some of the worst ones; there are better ways of tackling these issues.

Pensions will remain high on the bargaining agenda. I was in London today to discuss the proposed framework for further negotiations on the schemes in England and Wales. It was helpful to get an accurate description of recent events from the General Secretary after some of the nonsense that has been published. Our elected representatives on the service group executives have sanctioned further negotiations as the way ahead. We will pursue our own negotiations on the Scottish pension schemes.

The ConDem coalition will seek to attack workers rights under the guise of reducing business burdens. Unfair dismissal rights lost for the first two years, starting in April. This is to be followed by attacks on TUPE and collective redundancy consultation. The weakest employment rights in Western Europe are far from a burden on anyone. But worse of all is the assault on health and safety. Too many workers die or are injured every day at work. Recent figures show that less than 3% of complaints to the HSE result in prosecutions in Scotland and even FAIs are not happening when they should. So much for the safety culture.

Politically we will have local government elections for every council seat. This is the first time for a while that we have had stand alone council elections in Scotland and that should give a welcome focus on local government issues. I have been finalising a draft UNISON Scotland manifesto for the elections that highlights a range of issues of concern to members. The PR system doesn’t always deliver radical change at ward level, but we will have to wait and see. Increasing centralisation and punitive budgets will make this a difficult year for councils whoever wins the elections.

It won’t be much better for health boards despite the slightly higher funding levels. Real costs will exceed the notional inflation allowance and demand will rise through demographic change in particular.

At the national level we have new party leaders who will want to make their mark in 2012. Johann Lamont in particular has a difficult job knitting together all the elements of the Scottish Labour Party into a cohesive unit. Blairites will no doubt continue to plot away, undermining Ed Miliband at UK level and we will need to work hard to ensure none of that nonsense strays north of the border.

The legislative programme in the Scottish Parliament is not huge, but there will be some interesting issues. The Scotland Bill should grind out to a conclusion and it appears that Westminster might force the pace on the independence referendum. On the one hand any involvement of Cameron in Scotland plays badly. On the other, three more years of blaming Westminster for every ill in Scotland is going to get very monotonous. We will try and steer the debate away from the constitutional detail onto what sort of Scotland we want early in the New Year and I have just finished a discussion paper on that very issue.

We will want to refresh our Public Works campaign this year to continue to make the case against the ideological attack on public services. There is a better way and we need to find new ways of getting the message across.

Sadly, not a lot of good things to look forward to. In fact it looks like a long list of the euphemistically phrased ‘challenges’. One positive is the way we faced up to the challenges last year. Lots of good people working together to fight for what we believe in. More of that in 2012 and we won’t go far wrong. Oh and Fulham might win the double!