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
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
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
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.