Comment: Will the government HR policy please stand up?

By John Lloyd, national officer, Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union.

Time was when the Government’s attitudes and actions in the industrial relations world were a vital component of government reputation. Not anymore. Throughout the late 1970s and the Thatcher/Tebbit years, the “problem” of industrial relations was dealt with. Government thinking saw union pressure for higher pay as the chief cause of inflation and union power as the chief negative force in preventing British competitiveness in the emerging world economy.

Spontaneous industrial action and sympathy strikes were prevented and individual strikers lost protection from dismissal. Industrial action became impossibly expensive for the individuals concerned. Incomes policy was replaced with employer freedom and the public sector exposed to the market which did its duty in disciplining and restricting workers’ ambitions.

Perhaps the most successful policy was one not often mentioned by commentators. The last government did not abolish the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration service (Acas). After all, there were occasional disputes in big industries where someone had to hold the coats, and many small companies today owe Acas thanks for helping them design appropriate internal procedures.

But the last government did something else. It altered the terms of reference for Acas. It abolished the service’s obligation, as a matter of public policy, to encourage collective bargaining. As late as 1984, 72 per cent of workers’ conditions were governed directly or indirectly by the results of collective bargaining. Today that figure is about 36 per cent – a massive change to individual pay and conditions.

It’s a matter of keen interest as to what this current government has in mind as its “public policy” stance for Britain. Clearly, it is not going to remove laws concerning unofficial and sympathy action. Most trade unions understand the political realities that guarantee no change there. So what do they want? Partnership is the word that springs to mind.

In the global economy, the only advantage we might enjoy will be provided by a workforce that is encouraged to care that bit more about the company’s success. What the Government needs is the interest in partnership translated into practical activity. Who better to do that than Acas? OK, some unions are keen, Clive Morton’s Whitwell project holds promise, the TUC Partnership Institute is launched later this month and Willy Coupar’s Involvement and Participation Association continues to carry the flag.

But only Acas has the trust of all sides, and, crucially, unrivalled understanding of the problems and possibilities surrounding small and medium enterprises. They have a wise new chairwoman in Rita Donaghy. Collective bargaining may remain a minority interest, but the Government can surely resource Acas to take up the partnership issue for us all.

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