Outgoing Acas chair calls on government to value the conciliation service

Rita Donaghy was clearing out her office at Acas’s headquarters near London Bridge when we met during her last full week in the job. After seven years as chair of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service, she has stepped down, and was busy making space for her successor, Ed Sweeney.

Donaghy joined Acas in October 2000 after a long career in employment relations, which included chairing the steering committee that oversaw the 1993 merger of three public sector unions to form Unison. The merger took five years to achieve.

“It was a wonderful, exciting, frustrating and irritating experience that I would never want to go through again,” Donaghy said.

During her distinguished career, Donaghy has been a member of the Low Pay Commission, worked with the Equal Opportunities Commission, chaired the TUC Disabilities Forum, and had a one-year stint as president of the TUC – only the second lay member to have held the post in more than 130 years.

Critical time

Her appointment as Acas chair came at probably the most critical time in the publicly funded body’s 32-year history. The world of work was changing as Labour’s family-friendly employment policies took hold and union influence diminished.

“Our structure was centred on a world where unions were much stronger, had many more members, and collective bargaining was a strong feature of employment relations,” she said.

“We had moved into a world where there were more and varied people at work. People were not working shifts in factories in large numbers any more, the service sector had grown, small businesses had grown, and peoples’ attitudes had grown. Acas needed to respond to all this.”

The tried and tested method of communicating with workers through union and management channels was disappearing, so the service needed to develop new ways of accessing staff.

Donaghy admitted that the Acas website was “dire” when she first arrived and needed upgrading. There was also a tendency to use “jargony” language in its policy documents and codes of practice, she added.

“We did a survey with our stakeholders on how they regarded us, and there was shock that a lot had never heard of us, and if they had, they thought we were a trade union,” Donaghy admitted. “So we set about becoming more outward looking and selling ourselves. You have to explain who you are, what you do and why you are doing a good job.”

Helpful response

That Acas is doing a good job is not in question. Its website received 2.7 million visits last year, its helpline answered 839,335 calls, and the organisation delivered 2,707 good practice training sessions and intervened in 912 employment disputes.

It has achieved all this despite a backdrop of staff cuts and falling budgets. The organisation has shed hundreds of staff and closed offices over the past two years in the wake of a government decision to slash its funding. Its budget for 2007-08 is £42m, down £3.2m from last year.

“We’ve had the pain for the past two years and had to take our share of the Civil Service [job] cuts, which has been unfortunate. If we had more people we could do more,” Donaghy said.

More resources

One of the big challenges for the new chair Sweeney – a “brilliant appointment”, according to Donaghy – will be to bang the drum for more resources.

The Gibbons Review of dispute resolution recommended that Acas should play a bigger role in resolving workplace disputes, and Donaghy is hopeful that it might lead to the service expanding again.

According to Donaghy, other pressing issues for Sweeney to tackle will be the revision of the Acas code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures in light of any post-Gibbons changes.

Maintaining the organisation’s independence in the face of political pressure will also be an ongoing concern.

“The government will obviously have views about what should be in the code, and the Acas council might have a different view. Then it will be a test of the strength of the relationship as to what eventually emerges,” she said. “That tension is potentially always there and it’s important the Acas chair does say ‘we’re independent and impartial’.”

Despite the increasingly adversarial nature of employment disputes – for example, the high-profile stand off between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union – Donaghy believes there is not a single dispute that cannot be resolved.

“The timing is crucial in trying to get both sides together. Some of these disputes are getting more difficult, particularly in the public sector, as governments are more business minded as to how they spend money,” she said. “Acas knows what it would take to solve the Royal Mail dispute, but I’m not going to share that.”

Donaghy said she hoped that future governments – be they of red or blue persuasion – would continue to value Acas’s work.

“When you have both sides of industry, employers and unions supporting an organisation, it would be foolish to ignore that,” she said. “I think governments do recognise the value of Acas in keeping the political heat out of a lot of disputes that would otherwise land on ministers’ desks.”

Donaghy is to chair the Committee on Standards in Public Life until the end of the year, and after that put her feet up. “It’s been a wonderful seven years and an absolute privilege to be chair,” she said.

Rita Donaghy, out-going chair, Acas CV

2000-2007 chair, Acas

1999-2000 TUC president

1997-2000 member, Low Pay Commission

1987-2000 member, TUC general council

1984-2000 permanent secretary, Students’ Union

1973-2000 member, national executive council, NALGO/Unison

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