Dave Penman: Government risks a shootout on civil service pay

Now court documents have disclosed the backstory to this year’s pay guidance, civil service bosses need to rework their script, says the FDA general secretary

Photo: Fotolia

By Dave Penman

15 Nov 2018

People can often get a bit misty eyed about unions. Our history was forged in struggle, the sort of struggle where lives were lost or ruined battling employers for the right to join a union and have them defend workers’ rights. One of my favourite films is Matewan. It chronicles the real events around a mineworkers’ strike in West Virginia in the early 1920s which resulted in a shootout with detectives employed by the mining company. When I first watched it, I ached to be able to battle like this for union rights, preferably with a gunfight at the end.

Reality is somewhat different. At the time I was watching Matewan at the Glasgow Film Theatre, I was a young local rep in a Benefits Office, dealing with issues like asbestos, bullying and staffing deployments. All very real and important to members, but rarely did it result in a shootout.

I’ve always felt that for an individual, union membership is the ultimate selfish act. Your interests are represented collectively, which evidence shows is more effective, and if you need individual support, representation and expertise is on hand. That’s before any membership benefit or development package that many unions like the FDA now offer.


But employers also benefit from union recognition. Collective agreements mean they do not have to negotiate with individuals and change management is easier if a workforce believes their interests have been represented by a union. Pay deals or any major changes are often only sold to the workforce by a union seeking a vote to agree them.

In a recent conversation with a permanent secretary I recalled some of my first meetings with senior managers. As a local rep doing national negotiations, I knew much more intricately what was actually happening on the ground. This, of course, can be an invaluable tool to a senior manager as a member-focused union can provide feedback and information that does not always flow up the management chain.

Consultation with those representing staff should give employers an understanding of their workforce and demonstrate a commitment to at least considering their views as expressed through their chosen representatives.

So, what does it say about an employer where this is not a consideration? Or indeed one where, despite the presence of said reasonable member-focused pragmatic unions (you know, like the FDA), they clearly couldn’t care less?

One of the by-products of the recent judicial review we submitted on pay was the documentation disclosed as part of that process. Whilst we were unable to persuade the court that the civil service was obliged to meaningfully consult the unions over this year’s pay guidance, it did shine a light on how decisions were made.

After almost a decade of pay restraint, managing expectations seemed to be the main focus of debate and, as one choice line from the Treasury revealed, it was felt that such a low pay increase would help manage the expectations of other pay review bodies. Good to know that such a paltry pay rise for civil servants served a useful purpose.

Absent from the entire process was any real consideration for what staff would want or indeed what might be necessary to motivate, reward and recruit. Budgets were the focus of attention and asking for extra flexibility from the Treasury was ruled out.

All of this took place in late February. It may have taken nearly four months for that decision to be made public but, in reality, it was all done and dusted before an Easter egg was scoffed. We merrily attended our first meeting with the Cabinet Office on pay on the 29 March unaware that this and every other meeting was a waste of time. It was, according to the government’s counsel, a courtesy to keep meeting us. Keeping us informed but with metaphorical fingers firmly planted in ears.

You, the civil servants, and your aspirations were not evident by their inclusion anywhere in the process. Unions were merely a risk to be managed. Is it any wonder this process delivered the worst pay rises in the public sector?

An employer who isolates themself from the views of their staff or pretends they can connect directly to those views without unions is destined to make poorer decisions. It demonstrates a lack of confidence and an avoidance of challenge that no individual or staff network can provide.

The 2018 pay round has demonstrated that the civil service still struggles to act coherently as an employer rather than simply an arm of government. This has not been their finest hour. The question now is: do they even recognise the need for change or are we headed for a shootout?

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