Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by UNISON, Local Government Service Group (LAG 29)


  UNISON is pleased to make this short submission to the Select Committee's inquiry into local authority governance. We are the largest trade union in local government, representing some 850,000 members across the range of authorities and occupations. Many of the issues arising from the changes to political structures are of interest and concern to our members in this sector.

  We welcome the interest that the Select Committee is showing in this subject. It should be noted that the most recent guidance from the Department of Transport and the Regions (DETR) has only recently been published and it will take time to see how new systems work in practice. Nevertheless, we hope that the Committee's report will be of assistance in identifying issues and aspects of good practice which local authorities can draw upon as they go through the change process.


  The development of new political management structures is taking place against a backdrop of considerable change in local government. The Best Value process, in particular, is taking up time and energy. Local authorities should also be in the process of implementing the single status agreement, looking at grading and pay structures and addressing issues of inequality. A survey of UNISON members undertaken by NOP and published in May 2000 found that more than two in five (41 per cent) had experienced a major review in their area in the previous 12 months, 73 per cent felt that workload and pressure had increased in the previous year and 66 per cent seriously were considering leaving their job.

  It is therefore important to note that changes to political management arrangements are taking place in the context of uncertainty which is leading to anxiety about the future. Not surprisingly this presents some serious industrial relations challenges. We therefore hope that the Committee will highlight the importance of maintaining good industrial relations machinery as part of its final report.


  UNISON along with many other organisations made representations while the Local Government Bill was before Parliament to stress the importance of openness and accountability in the local government decision making process. We are pleased to see that some changes were made which will mean that key decisions have to be taken with due notification and publicity. We hope that this will go some way towards alleviating some of the problems of a culture of secrecy which we were aware was beginning to develop in some areas.

  We believe that it is an important principle of local democracy that decisions should be taken in an open fashion. In the nature of local government many issues are contentious between areas or between communities. Councillors need to be fully informed about the consequences of their decisions and that can only be achieved if the public has full access to the process.

  Likewise, we believe that building a successful partnership with the workforce requires the cultivation of an atmosphere which is open and accountable. We support the development of a "learning culture" which acknowledges and correct mistakes in an open fashion rather than allowing a "blame culture" to develop where problems are hidden and difficulties are covered up. These are principles which we believe should permeate political management arrangements.


  UNISON believes that local councils have a role to play in setting good employment standards. The services councils deliver rely on the skills, motivation and dedication of their workforce to deliver them effectively. Local authorities are therefore disproportionately "people-centred" organisations. They are also often the largest employer in a locality and have an important role in leading by example with modern working practices.

  We believe that the arrangements for local collective bargaining need to be built into the heart of new models of political management as we are concerned that this is being overlooked in some instances. It is our firm view that these arrangements cannot be left as an "add-on" to be thought about when the rest of the process is complete. If this is the approach adopted we believe that councils will pay the price of a breakdown in communication and ineffective disputes resolution machinery.

  Under the traditional system of political management local authorities generally have bargaining arrangements in the form of a local Joint Consultative Committee. These then report to a personnel committee of the council. There is therefore a structure in place which involves trade unions, human resource professionals and elected members. There is also a direct link into the policy making of the council and a mechanism for referring disputes.

  It is UNISON's view that it is important to maintain both the link with the political direction of the council and an effective joint machinery. It is important that the local forum for collective bargaining does not just become a "talking shop" but that it has the authority to make decisions which will be acted upon. In our view it is important that the collective bargaining machinery should be able to link directly to the cabinet or executive arm of the Council.

  We also believe that there should be a cabinet member with direct responsibility for human resource matters. Clearly all those with executive functions will need to keep in mind a personnel dimension of their responsibilities. There are few decisions which a council might make which do not have an impact on the workforce.

  However, it is also important for there to be an identifiable person with responsibility for the corporate and strategic direction of human resource management. We hope that these are principles which will be supported by the Select Committee.


  The roles of overview and scrutiny committees is potentially one of the most important features of the new political arrangements. We have advised our branches that they should consider how they will relate to these committees in the various different forms they are taking. We firmly believe that trade unions have an important contribution to make and will add considerably to the perspective of these committees.

  As a minimum we believe that the local UNISON branch should receive notice of the issues which an overview and scrutiny committee will be considering. The trade unions should also be copied in to relevant background material and papers which are going to the committee. The likelihood that many of the issues under discussion will have workforce implications means that it will often be relevant for UNISON to submit evidence and even to participate in committees.


  UNISON held a seminar in May 2000 for our members who are chief officers and senior managers in councils. The seminar was addressed by Professor Steve Leach of De Montford University and it provided an opportunity to explore a variety of the implications of new political structures for this group of staff.

  The discussion in the seminar demonstrated that the issues involved can be complex. On the one hand there were concerns expressed that an increasingly "hands on" role by executive members, particularly paid, full-time executive members, could undermine the professionalism and judgement of chief officers. There were fears that this could harm career prospects and damage job satisfaction.

  On the other hand, there were concerns that servicing a more streamlined cabinet system could lead to the politicisation of chief officers' roles. It was felt that executive members might want a far more explicitly political dimension to the advice they were receiving. Attendance at overview and scrutiny committees and requirements to give evidence could add to this trend. Again, UNISON members were concerned about the impact on career prospects and job security.

  It seems clear that new political arrangements will have an inevitable impact on the role of chief officers. Quite how that will play out probably depends on the culture and political character of the authority concerned. Our advice is that councils should draw up protocols to set out in advance what the expectations will be of chief officers and others involved in advising and servicing committees. These protocols should be reviewed and moderated as necessary on a regular basis, and in the first instance every six months. We would like to see this taken on board by the Select Committee as a recommendation.


  UNISON trust that the Select Committee will look closely at the workforce implications of new political arrangements in local councils for all the reasons we have set out above. We hope that the Committee will give due weight to the importance of ensuring that the workforce dimension is kept firmly in mind when moving to new arrangements. We hope also that the Committee will consider carefully the impact of new arrangements on chief officers and those who service and advise committees. We would, of course, be happy to attend to give further oral evidence if it was felt by the Committee that this would be useful.

January 2001

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