Q & A: union learning representatives

Alan
Johnson, minister of state for employment relations, industry and the regions
at the department of trade and industry, talks exclusively to
PersonnelToday.com about the new statutory rights given to Union Learning
Representatives in the Employment Act, By Simon Kent

Q
Why was legislation required?

A
If you consider Level 2 skills across Europe, you find 82 per cent of the
German workforce have those skills and 71 per cent of the French workforce have
those skills, but only 54 per cent of the UK workforce have them.

When
you look at who receives training in this country, it’s not the people who
really need it. Managers, professionals or those with a degree, are five times
more likely to receive training than people with no qualifications or those in
unskilled jobs, so there’s a big problem. Those who take up training
opportunities are not always the people for whom training is most important.

Then
you find, with Union Learning Representatives supported through the Union
Learning Fund, four-fifths [80 per cent] of learners have qualifications below
NVQ level 2. These training initiatives are reaching those important groups –
older males, people on shift work, people from ethnic minorities.

We
studied this and decided it had been a glowing success, so what could we do to
encourage take-up? We looked at the fact that only half of all ULRs get any
paid time off to do this and only a third get paid time off to train, so that’s
the reason these measures went into the manifesto.

Q
When will the legislation come in?

A
We can’t be specific. We had to wait for Acas to go through consultation on
the revised code. That code goes in front of the House of Commons this
Wednesday [2 April] and the House of Lords the following Wednesday [9 April].
The calculation is that the new rights will come into force around the end of
April.

We
were very keen to have a one-day introduction of all measures in the Employment
Act – a so-called ‘Red Tape Day’ – since there is a benefit for employers to
have one day when all of these things change. However, everything else will
come in on 6 April while this one part of the Act will be delayed – but not by
too long.

Q
Should Union Learning Representatives only address basic skills?

A
They’re not just there for basic skills, but it depends on the organisation. We
have six Union Learning Representatives in the DTI, and there are ULRs spread
throughout the civil service. In these situations, you’re talking in the main
about people who do have the Level 2 European Standard, so then it’s a matter
of encouraging staff to take up the training packages the employers themselves
are offering.

We
did not make training one of the issues over which employers must collectively
bargain, but this is an issue over which there should be some consultation. So
the employer will decide the training package, informing and consulting with
its workforce, but not bargaining or negotiating these packages. Then they need
maximum take-up, and that’s where the ULRs can help.

Q
Could there be problems if the workforce has both union and non-union members?

A
I’ve not run into any problems with that so far. Learning representatives
have been through a training programme and they should bring benefits across
the workforce. If there’s a ULR enthusing about training opportunities in the
canteen to a table full of people, the encouragement to train will occur
whether they’re union members or not.

Q
Essentially, then, this legislation gives ULRs the right to do the job, but
leaves flexibility to the employer to take advantage of this resource and to
take the lead as to how they are used?

A
That’s exactly right. All we are saying is that Union Learning Reps now
carry the same status as other senior union representatives. The Acas code has
been drawn up by employers and unions together, and it is not prescriptive –
it’s very flexible.

I
find it difficult to comprehend that employers who voluntarily entered into an
agreement to recognise Union Learning Reps have not been giving them the chance
to do that job. Perhaps there are reasons for that and those reasons will
survive these changes, but it might be solved by this part of the legislation.

Overall,
the legislation is about saying these representatives now have official status,
and if you haven’t thought about it before, this should focus your mind much
more closely on their function.

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