FDA chief Dave Penman: Why it was important to strike a deal over the Civil Service Compensation Scheme

Reaching an agreement on thorny issues like redundancy pay is never easy – but it’s always better than the alternative

By Dave Penman

08 Nov 2016

By the time you read this, the government will have legislated for new redundancy arrangements in the civil service, following a deal we have just concluded with them. What few people see, though, is what it takes to reach an agreement of this type. The civil service is notoriously poor at explaining to staff the detail of changes, never mind how and why an agreement has been reached. 

As a union we’ve spent hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds negotiating, researching, informing and consulting about these proposals. FDA members voted overwhelmingly to agree the deal and I am proud of what we have achieved in very difficult circumstances. 

Firstly, let’s be clear. These proposals were neither necessary nor justified. Just six years after we last concluded a deal with the government, it was back again demonstrating its commitment to austerity through its favoured measure – making an example of its own employees. Governments of all colour have done this, whether it’s pay policy, sick pay levels or, in this case, an extension of the earlier dog-whistle politics that led to a £95k cap on exit payments being legislated for across the public sector.

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However unjustified the approach from an employer is, our job is to influence the outcome on behalf of our members. This is more complicated when the employer is the government and it’s not, ostensibly, about “the bottom line”.  At the outset we need to test the resolve of the employer: is it set on seeing this through? In this case it was clear that there was significant political weight behind this, as it was part of a public sector-wide approach to cutting redundancy terms. 

We then need to develop a strategy based on any number of issues, including potential weaknesses in the government’s position, opportunities to challenge in the courts, the government’s appetite for agreement and, of course, members’ appetite for industrial action. All of this goes into the mix early to determine how we can best defend our members and influence the outcome.

A negotiation only works if an agreement is both possible and valuable to both sides. That was far from clear when the Cabinet Office first published its proposals in February. Regardless of the history and sense of betrayal, the proposals would have meant that most civil servants facing redundancy would get no more than 12 months’ redundancy pay, access to early pension would be restricted and the agreement regulating the approach to avoiding redundancy would be abandoned.

At that stage few thought an agreement was likely. Who would have bet against a public consultation resulting in thousands of responses disagreeing with the proposals, only for the government to plough ahead regardless? Your money could not have been safer if you’d bet against Scotland qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

Yet we worked hard at convincing officials – and two separate ministers – that not only was a deal possible, it was preferable. That is what unlocks movement, the art of the possible – so to speak. Once convinced of the preference of a deal, our job is then to move ministers and officials as far as possible through evidence, argument, persuasion, dogmatic research, pedantry and yes, the occasional tub-thump and threat (that’s my speciality BTW).

We got some movement by June when an interim offer was made, which required agreement in principle to unlock further negotiation. The FDA, together with Prospect, GMB, Unison and the Defence Police Federation, agreed to further talks and we started the whole influencing process again, this time interspersed by the political turmoil that accompanied the EU referendum and a new minister. More tubs were thumped and detail scrutinised until a final position was reached.

The deal not only sees the maximum award increase to 18 months from the original 12, but early payment of pension is also protected and improved through a flexibility to maximise the value of payment up to the £95k cap. In addition, we’ve retained the protocols for avoiding redundancy, which now also cover the SCS for the first time.

Deals like this are never easy. It ultimately took commitment and energy from both sides to keep the negotiations alive, when at times they looked as dead as Michael Gove’s cabinet career. But regardless of how proud I am of our negotiating team and what I know we have achieved, ultimately members face the prospect of another cut in their terms and conditions. And so, despite their understandable anger at being picked on again, they also understood that a deal was preferable. 

And that’s important, not just in relation to these changes, but for the next proposal dreamed up to satisfy a section of whatever party is in power. Paul Noon, the former general secretary of Prospect, once said to me that reaching agreement can be habit-forming for ministers and should at all times be encouraged.

Let’s hope that’s the case with the new minister for the Cabinet Office. I’ve seen enough bad habits from ministers in my time, so a few good ones would be welcome all round. 


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