Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Unison (LGA 41)


  UNISON is pleased to make this short submission to the Select Committee's inquiry into how the Local Government Act 2000 is working. 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 note that the Committee conducted a similar inquiry last year although the timing of the general election meant that it was unable to report. We submitted both written and oral evidence to that inquiry and this submission restates a number of the points we made then, although it obviously draws on our experience over the last year.

  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 in developing their ways of working in response to the Act.


  The development of new political management structures is taking place against a backdrop of considerable change in local government. Best Value has taken up time and energy and local authorities are now preparing for their new Comprehensive Performance Assessments. The most recent survey of our members in local government, undertaken by NOP and published in June 2001 found that 39 per cent had experienced a major review in their work area in the previous 12 months, 70 per cent felt that stress levels had increased in the previous year, and 68 per cent had considered 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 good local industrial relations machinery.


  UNISON welcomed that new power for local authorities to promote the social, economic and environmental well-being of their area. The requirement to produce a Community Strategy means that local authorities are well placed to provide coherence and vision and to set an overall context for other public service providers, for businesses and for the community and voluntary sector in their area.

  We have drawn attention to the importance of local authorities as large-scale employers. Councils have an important role to play in setting benchmarks and standards for other employers in the area and, of course, all of these issues impact directly on the local economy and social inclusion strategies. Likewise, the authority's approach to procurement can have a significant impact on the local economy. UNISON has provided ample evidence that contracting out of services has led to the emergence of a two-tier workforce with new staff paid at lower rates and having poorer terms and conditions. We know from the experience of Compulsory Competitive Tendering that these are issues which disproportionately affect women and those from black and ethnic minority communities.

  UNISON therefore believes that to give real expression to the power to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being councils need to pay full attention to their own role in procurement and as employers.


  We believe that the arrangements for local collective bargaining need to be built into the heart of new models of political management and 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 negotiating committee. These committees traditionally reported to a personnel committee of the council. This provided for a structure which involved trade unions, human resource professionals and elected members. There was also a direct link into the policy making of the council and a mechanism for referring disputes.

  In UNISON's view 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 role 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 trusts 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.

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