Government must clarify the role of union learning reps

Legislation allowing trade unions to appoint union learning representatives
in the workplace is due to come into force any time now. But for employers many
vital questions still remain unanswered

Imagine the following scenario. One of your employees tells you: "I
want half a day with pay to go through my training requirements with John Smith
next week. OK?"

John is one of your shopstewards, and you’ve only just received a letter
from his union advising you that it has designated him as the union learning
representative (ULR) for your location. Now four managers come along telling
you that they’ve had this request from the employee.

So what do you do? It would be straight-forward if you had some guidance –
but you don’t. The new law entitling trade unions to appoint ULRs in workplaces
where they are recognised is due to come into effect this Spring, yet there is
still no guidance from the Government on how it is supposed to work (News, 25

At the Employers Forum on Statute and Practice (EFSP), we hold sessions
designed to help practitioners understand what new laws require, and offer
advice to those who frame regulations to make the whole thing more practical.

Normally, everyone wins. Members get advance warning of what is coming and
raise any problems, the regulators are forewarned about unintended
consequences, and the eventual legislation hits its target.

But not this time. There was consultation a couple of years ago. Then,
however, the Government was suggesting that ULRs might have a useful role to
play in tackling the real problem of adult literacy in the workforce, both
within and beyond the ranks of union members. The idea was that people who were
fearful of admitting to their employer that they could not read or write, or
lacked basic numeracy skills, might feel more confident about seeking the
necessary training with the support of a union representative.

EFSP and others applauded this objective, but questioned whether this was
the best way of attaining it, since research shows that such people typically
work in small firms where unions are not recognised. These points were ignored.

Instead, the legislation that emerged last year vastly extends the scope of
what the learning reps can do. Their role now seems to cover the complete
training agenda, at all skill levels. Another surprise was that their
activities are to be limited to helping their own members.

Since then, there has only been silence – except for an update of the Acas
code on time off for trade union duties and activities. Acas has done the best
it can, but it cannot read the legislators’ minds.

So vital practical questions remain unanswered. How many learning
representatives can a union appoint in a workplace? What are they going to do?
Are they going to try to add training to the negotiating agenda? How much
training will they need to carry out their own role? What are they meant to
talk to their members about? How often and for how long should members be
entitled to see them? Can they commission staff training and, if so, at whose
expense? Are there circumstances in which employers can turn down their
requests for such training?

It is all very worrying for employers. There is a mass of new legislation
coming through. The work-life balance changes – statutory paternity leave,
adoption leave and the right to request flexible work – are imminent. So are
regulations on equal pay questionnaires. Major proposals on information and
consultation are due this summer.

TUPE revisions are promised. It will become unlawful to discriminate on
grounds of sexual orientation. And finally – and participants in our sessions
anticipate all sort of problems here – the Government must legislate to outlaw
discrimination on grounds of religion and belief (just in time for Christmas).

In the short-term, let us hope that we get some guidance on ULRs.

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