Landmark deal for Whitehall unions

30 Sep 99
Civil service unions are set to agree a ground-breaking 'partnership agreement' with the Cabinet Office and Treasury which offers guarantees of consultation on management changes in return for flexibility on staffing and working practices.

01 October 1999

The agreement is understood to approach – but stop short of – the no-strike deal some ministers have been pressing for, but represents a breakthrough in committing public service staff to the 'ownership of change', as a negotiator close to the deal put it.

'Basically, this offers the government a much more responsive civil service at the top, much better services at the bottom,' said a senior trade unionist, who did not wish to be named 'at this delicate stage'.

That enthusiasm was also expressed by negotiators from the First Division Association, representing senior Whitehall staff, as well as the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists.

The agreement is viewed in Whitehall as a precondition for the success of the management reform programme due to be agreed at the Sunningdale conference of permanent secretaries which ends on October 1. A 'framework' document is due to be agreed between the Treasury, Cabinet Office, the Council of Civil Service Unions and individual unions, which would be applied in detail within Whitehall departments.

Applied locally, it would form the basis for implementing Sunningdale's proposed changes in recruitment, promotion and performance pay.

The civil service unions say the agreement could help avoid the problems surrounding the introduction of new information technology systems by consulting staff earlier.

'Partnership agreements' have been pioneered in the private sector by companies such as Tesco and Ford, and have been compared with the co-determination agreements common in Germany.

Among unions, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union has been most enthusiastic. Civil service trade unionists are in favour but admit that so far the embryo agreement is rather vaguely worded.

It is not clear, for example, whether the agreement will head off disputes over privatisations, such as the National Air Traffic System.

However, they cite close consultation between unions, top civil servants and ministers during the Defence Review led by Lord Robertson as a model for the new agreement. This did involve staff cuts but did not result in industrial action.


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