The issue of union learning representatives is causing some confusion. Simon
Kent explains their role in upholding employees’ rights to training and
Statutory rights for Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) are due to come into
force in early May as part of the Employment Act 2002. Uncertainty may surround
their precise official role, but it is generally felt by all – from the unions
to the CBI – that these newly recognised lay representatives will bring
benefits to both employers and staff by encouraging the take up of training,
particularly in the area of basic skills.
According to the Regulatory Impact Assessment for introducing these
statutory rights, published by the Employment Relations Directorate of the DTI
last summer, statutory backing was judged necessary for these new
representatives to realise their potential. Citing the case that only 11 per
cent of employers offered literacy and numeracy training compared with the 20
per cent of adults with serious problems in this area, the assessment concluded
that ULRs could trigger an increase in employee productivity worth £140m over
The law itself (contained in Section 42 of the Employment Act 2002) gives
ULRs statutory rights to paid time off while receiving the training necessary
to carry out their duties, plus further paid time off to carry out those
duties. To this extent, the rights afforded them are no different to those
enjoyed by existing union representatives. They ensure that the ULR has the
opportunity to be effective in their role. However, controversy stills dogs
this issue – what exactly should a ULR be doing?
"In the original government documentation, they appeared to be entirely
about basic skills," says Robbie Gilbert, chief executive of the Employers’
Forum on Statute and Practice (EFSP). "But at some point, they became
concerned with the whole range of training.
"I don’t believe it has ever been thought through as to how the ULRs
will work with the employers’ own provision of training."
At the time of going to press, there are several publications in the
pipeline to help all parties involved to get the most out of ULRs. The
Department for Education and Skills (DfES) is set to publish its Employer’s
Guide to Union Learning Representatives in the late spring. Drawn up in
consultation with the CBI, with input from a number of employers, this case
study-based resource will give practical, real-life examples of the work of
ULRs and the benefits to employers. It will appear on the DfES, DTI and Acas
websites, and will be available to employers on request.
The TUC has already published diverse information and case studies involving
ULRs, including the recent pamphlet Union Learning Representatives – New Rights,
New Opportunities, which outlines the duties and practical activities of the
The TUC is also working with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Development (CIPD) on a publication funded by the Learning and Skills Council
to give advice to all staff and employers on how best to facilitate ULRs.
Again, no precise publication date has been set.
Crucially, the revised Acas Code of Practice for Time Off for Trade Union
Duties and Activities – the only document which may be cited at tribunal to
assess whether an employer is implementing the new regulations appropriately –
has yet to be passed by Parliament. While it has government backing and is
expected to be passed in ‘late spring’, it could face delays due to
Victoria Gill, learning, training and development adviser at the CIPD,
believes case study material is important for employers. "One aspect of
ULRs is a fear of the unknown," she says. "If you see other people’s
experiences – positive or negative – you can learn from that."
At the same time, she identifies the need for a ‘realistic framework’ to
govern ULR activities, and says the CIPD is keen for clear guidelines to be
published to ensure that conflicts do not arise between ULRs and an
organisation’s HR/training department.
So what should these departments be doing now? Given that the code of
practice simply refers to rights to time off and not to the wider role of ULRs,
the EFSP’s Gilbert warns against jumping the gun. He argues it is better to
discover how unions wish to move forward with these new rights and respond to
that, while continuing to lobby for clearer guidance.
However, Derek Kemp, group managing director of Human and Legal Resources,
believes employers must act now to realise the benefits of ULRs. "There
has to be a proactive move by the employer to recognise the ULR’s
contribution," he says.
"You need to agree their role and decide how best they can contribute
to training within the organisation. The ULR’s role is likely to be very
different in a local authority compared with one in a high-tech or
HR and legal departments are already helping clients address their policies
to integrate the work of ULRs into their business. Policies relating to the
consultation process and to training and development activities need to be
Simon Spencer, corporate employment lawyer with legal firm Morrison and
Forester, is also in favour of action, encouraging employers to negotiate and
agree on the ULR’s role, rather than waiting for them to work it out for
"In some organisations there is already a blurring or overlapping of
activities among union officials," he says. "Existing officials may
already be engaged in activities which should now be the responsibility of
learning representatives. HR departments must agree in advance precisely what
the activities of the ULRs and other officials are, so that when they take paid
time off, they are engaged in work they are meant to be doing."
While tribunal cases concerning ‘reasonable’ time off for union activities
are not common, they do occur and, Spencer argues, having an agreed definition
of a representative’s duties reduces the probability of such disagreements.
To some extent, instigating a dialogue on ULRs shouldn’t be too difficult –
simply because representatives can only exist where independent trade unions
are already recognised. Affected organisations should therefore already have
some communication structure through which ULRs can be managed. Complications
may occur in instances of statutory recognition of a trade union and/or where
negotiation agreements are considered legally binding, but such scenarios are
Regardless of legal procedures, ensuring ULRs are integrated into
organisations and supported by training and development is key to ensuring that
benefits are realised and problems are not created.
Kemp warns of the demotivating effects of allowing ULRs to raise training
expectations only to have them left unfulfilled by the organisation. Measures
must be taken to ensure both parties are singing from the same hymn sheet.
What is a Union Learning Representative (ULR)?
A ULR is an officially recognised
employee in a unionised workplace who has received training from their union to
enable them to give advice on training and learning opportunities to fellow
What they can do:
– They can take paid time off to undertake training to allow
them to carry out their duties as a ULR
– They can take paid time off to offer fellow union members
training advice and inform them of learning opportunities
– Union members have the right to access their ULR in work
time, but the employer does not need to pay them at this time
– They can research and establish resources for learning activities
– They can work with the employer to design learning
initiatives, carry out learning surveys and establish learning agreements with
– They can set up and run learning centres or employee
– They can help organisations access learning resources via
Learndirect and/or the Union Learning Fund
What they can’t do
– They cannot provide paid or unpaid time off for their
union members to undertake training – an employer’s consent is required for this
– They cannot (by law) give advice or support to non-union
– They cannot exist in places which do not already recognise
their trade union
Do they only do union training, or do they get involved in
– Training provided has little to do with the union
itself. The ULR can work to provide training on whatever subject they feel is
relevant. Their position in the workforce makes them particularly useful for
the provision of basic skills
– ULRs can get involved
in promoting company training according to agreements between the company and
the representative. They are useful for ensuring maximum take up of in-house
learning and training initiatives
Can they take money from company budgets for union training,
or does the union pay?
– Union Learning Representatives cannot make any demands on the
training budgets of companies. The employer retains full control over all
– Funding, or some initiatives, can be sourced through the
Does the company have to pay for some training?
– It can if it feels it is appropriate or useful. In many of
the training partnerships already established, companies have contributed
through the provision of training spaces – on-site classrooms,etc – and through
giving time off for employees to spend on learning activities
Do they make recommendations that companies can ignore or do
companies have to do what they ask?
– There is no compulsion for companies to follow
recommendations made by ULRs. However, rather than ignore them, companies
should consult and consider the input they receive from these representatives
URLs and their benefits
There are around 3,000 ULRs in
existence, working with firms ranging from Metroline buses and Gloucester City
Services, to Birds Eye and British Bakeries. Anne Murphy, a project worker with
USDAW, the union that piloted many ULRs and campaigned for statutory
recognition, is adamant that employers have felt the benefits since such
initiatives have been in operation.
"In my experience, there hasn’t been one organisation that
has implemented something, then walked away from it rather than working with
the idea to see it go from strength to strength," she says.
At Littlewoods, an initiative originally created through the
Union Learning Fund has grown to include the provision of an on-site learning
centre managed by a steering group made up of representatives from the union
and employer. Littlewoods has given space for the learning centre, but as the
required technology comes from a local college and the learning takes place in
the employees’ own time, training provision is not at great cost to the company.
"We see working in partnership with learning reps as a
crucial part of our overall efforts to develop a learning culture within
Littlewoods retail," says the company’s training manager Ann McGrath.
Indeed, the partnership has resulted in the roles and responsibilities of
learning representatives being enshrined within the organisation’s Lifelong
Union Learning Representatives must
be members of an independent trade union recognised by the employer. They can
only work with staff who are also trade union members.
Unions must give the employer notice that ULRs are to undergo
training and confirm in writing that such training has been undertaken within
The ULR is entitled to reasonable paid time off for the
– Analysing training needs
– Providing information on training
– Arranging training
– Promoting training
– Consulting with the employer about training
– Preparation for the above activities
– Undergoing training relevant to their role as a ULR
The Acas Code of Practice for Time Off for Trade Union Duties
and Activities will be used to determine what constitutes reasonable time off
and sufficient training for ULR duties.
What it means for the organisation:
The DTI Regulatory Impact Assessment on statutory rights for
ULRs estimated initial training for ULRs would require five days paid leave,
and that carrying out duties and undergoing subsequent training would require
nine days of paid time off per year.
The same document suggests three hours of a middle manager’s
time per ULR per year would be required for admin purposes, such as receiving
and processing official notices and individual requests by ULRs for time off.