Council HR teams lack negotiation skills to deal with union unrest over public spending cuts, HR directors warn

Local government HR teams are lacking the right industrial relations skills to deal with potential union unrest sparked by future cuts in public spending, council HR directors have warned.


The full extent of public sector spending cuts will be outlined by chancellor Alistair Darling in the pre-Budget report, with ministers already committed to £15bn of efficiency savings by 2014 in efforts to get government debt under control. Councils have already warned that thousands of back-office jobs, including HR, are at risk of being axed to protect front-line services.


Richard Crouch, head of HR and organisational development at Somerset County Council, warned that workforce changes needed to achieve efficiency savings could cause an upsurge in union activity, which many HR teams would not have the right skills to deal with. “I would suspect that in local government there will be a lot of councils that need to raise the capability of negotiation skills within HR,” he told Personnel Today.


Somerset Council will see its budget cut by up to 24%, and is considering pulling out of a national bargaining agreement – which sets pay and terms and conditions nationwide – and potentially sacking all 9,000 staff before rehiring them on different terms.


Historically, much of the negotiation activity with unions over pay and working conditions was conducted at a national level, leaving council HR functions with little negotiating experience, Crouch said. “If [union activity] really kicks off, we will have to buy in some expertise. We could be looking to the private sector and then training them in terms of the local government.”


George Bishop, director of personnel at the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, said that although his team had industrial relations experience, there were councils that have had very little practice at large-scale union negotiations. “I think there’s probably a need for increased negotiation skills and improvement in them because, over the past few years, there hasn’t been a great need for people to have that capability,” he said.


“There will be councils that have not faced any major industrial action, so there will be people who have to refresh those skills.”


Younger HR staff, he said, are more likely to lack negotiating experience, so it was essential that HR’s succession planning enabled those with these skills to pass them on to colleagues and act as mentors, possibly across different councils.


Gillian Hibberd, president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association, and HR director at Buckinghamshire County Council, added that those wanting to improve their negotiating skills should shadow colleagues on any contractual negotiations and look for peers in different sectors who they could talk tactics with.


But Joanne Machers, chief personnel officer at Hartlepool Borough Council, insisted HR functions did possess the necessary negotiating skills because they had to work with unions on local issues, including implementing equal pay.


“Local government has been changing since time began, and each authority has had to manage change at a local level as well as implement nationally negotiated changes,” she said.


Councils’ HR plans for efficiency savings




  • Reducing salaries of top three tiers of managers


  • Stopping performance-related pay increments


  • Reviewing redundancy compensation payments


  • Reviewing market supplements and honorary payments, such as bonuses


  • Asking staff to volunteer to work reduced hours either temporarily or permanently


  • Reviewing third-party supply chain


  • Rationalising office space


  • Launching shared services for HR, IT and finance


  • Departmental restructures.

Source: Somerset, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex councils

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