Councils warned to create mediation services ahead of budget cuts

Councils should set up in-house mediation services to address the “human casualties” and potential grievances which will result from next year’s local authority budget cuts, leading local authority HR chiefs have warned.

The Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA) said there was a strong business case for preparing mediation services in-house to try to cap the number of employee disputes – and employment tribunals – which could be lodged as a result of the changes.

This year’s Budget revealed government plans to slash public sector spending by £15bn by 2013-14, leading to hundreds of back-office jobs being made redundant to protect front-line services.

Richard Crouch, director of HR and organisational development at Somerset County Council – which launched an internal mediation service three years ago – said: “Some of the fallout of budget cuts will be dealing with the emotional side and the human casualties. Stress levels will go up, sickness levels will rise and union activity will shoot through the roof, so [councils] need these support mechanisms in place.”

Leatham Green, the assistant director of personnel and training at East Sussex County Council – which launched its mediation service in 2006 – said councils would “be missing an A* opportunity” to make restructuring more efficient if they failed to create mediation services before the cuts were made.

The council has already been forced to save £50m over the past five years, and has relied on its mediation service to resolve the disputes sparked.

Green said: “A huge amount of mediation has taken place around restructuring and it’s been very beneficial for us. We can deal with conflict locally before it goes into a formal setting.”

The council’s conciliation service has had a 100% success rate in the 48 cases raised since it began, Green claimed. He cited a drop in formal disputes by 47% and an increase in productive days by 5,800 as people returned to work earlier.

Gillian Hibberd, PPMA president and HR director of Buckinghamshire County Council, endorsed in-house mediation services as a “no-brainer”.

“It’s good practice and there’s a really strong business case for doing it,” she said. “There are cost savings but there are also softer benefits around morale, motivation and engagement. It takes the hassle away from having to deal with complex and lengthy grievance processes.”

She added using in-house mediation was cheaper and faster than pursuing grievance procedures, and internal mediators could spot problems sooner and resolve them before a grievance or disciplinary stage.

But Stephen Moir, HR director at Cambridge County Council, said his function had decided against setting up a mediation service, and councils should instead be investing in training their line managers with mediation skills.

“The creation of mediation services could take something away from line managers and create a dependency on the mediation service rather than on their own skills,” he said.

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