You’ve probably all played that parlour game where you get to choose who plays you in a movie. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise is forced to fight the same battle over and over again, each time making slightly more progress in the skirmish against an alien army. The film, set in the UK, has “Live. Die. Repeat.” as the tagline and – a little-known fact – the plot was actually based on the recurring negotiations on the Civil Service Compensation Scheme.
We are about to enter in to our fourth set of negotiations on the CSCS and the second occasion where a deal has been struck with some unions only to be successfully challenged in the courts by PCS, prompting a revised and more detrimental offer from the government than the one previously negotiated.
Live. Die. Repeat.
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is one of the aphorisms (thank you Wikipedia) the philosopher George Santayana was famous for. So, come with me on a journey back in time to see if recent history can tell us anything about this subject.
In 2009-10 the civil service unions were involved in protracted negotiations to reform the CSCS. By February 2010, after many false dawns, a final offer was made. Tessa Jowell was the minister seeing this through in what were the last days of Gordon Brown’s Labour government, something we all knew implicitly as we negotiated.
That offer was accepted by five out of six of the main unions. PCS, by far the biggest union, rejected it. The government sought to change the scheme and were successfully challenged by PCS in the courts, just days before the election.
The result effectively meant no changes could be made as there was no employee consent: not a position any employer, never mind government, wants to be in. As anticipated, the new government sought not only to re-start the process, but this time wanted to roll back the redundancy terms even further and change the legislation. All entirely predictable.
So, we entered another round of negotiations, trying to persuade the new Cabinet Office minister Frances Maude – who was not instinctively inclined to negotiations with unions – that there was a point to doing a deal and endeavouring to get the previous deal back on the table.
This time they made an interim offer and only those unions that would accept this as a basis for agreement entered the final phase. Sound familiar? Only four of the six did.
I was the lead negotiator for the FDA at that time and together with Dai Hudd, the deputy general secretary at Prospect, we worked our socks off to not only negotiate improvements to the terms on offer, but to broker the necessary deals with Labour in opposition.
Tessa Jowell, now shadow minister, was a supportive and honest ally. If the deal had fallen apart we’d have seen redundancy terms of 12 months max imposed, but it didn’t. Frantic phone calls, literally on the morning it went to the Commons, ensured it passed to the second chamber.
Over the next few months Dai and myself spent endless hours working with the policy leads for Labour – Lord Brett, a former general secretary of a predecessor union to Prospect, and Lord McKenzie. The reality was all three main political parties supported the removal of a “consent veto”. As the bill moved through the Lords, we helped draft a series of measures that introduced enhanced consultation arrangements instead, which PCS then relied on in their latest judicial challenge.
Like Tom Cruise’s character, I have many war stories (yes, he’s playing me in the film) but this was far and away my proudest moment. It meant civil servants retained decent redundancy terms at a time when we knew tens of thousands would be relying on them. It meant so much to us as negotiators because it was so important. It was a decent deal, but ultimately not as good as the one Labour had offered. All entirely predictable.
Now we seem destined, yet again, to repeat these events. Having persuaded not one, but two separate ministers that a negotiated settlement has value and requires the civil service deal to go beyond Treasury limits for redundancy, we’re now back at square minus one.
Live. Die. Repeat.
This year’s judicial review was about process – the PCS argued government had failed to consult “with a view to reaching an agreement” – and so, just as in 2010, the dynamics of negotiation remain the same. We now need to persuade a third minister that a deal is not only possible, but preferable, to unlock movement in negotiation.
And that gets more difficult each time we “Live. Die. Repeat.”