Brown to meet PCS in last-ditch effort to stop strikes

4 Jan 07
Chancellor Gordon Brown will host eleventh-hour discussions aimed at preventing a national strike by civil servants later this month, Public Finance has learnt.

05 January 2007

Chancellor Gordon Brown will host eleventh-hour discussions aimed at preventing a national strike by civil servants later this month, Public Finance has learnt.

Brown is set to attend talks with the Public and Commercial Services union, which this week balloted its 300,000 members over walkouts in protest at 100,000 job cuts, office closures, the privatisation of services and below-inflation pay offers.

Brown's involvement will follow meetings between the civil service unions and a new Cabinet Office body set up to prevent unrest across Whitehall. The first is set for January 16.

Brown's team will meet the PCS on January 29, just two days before likely walkouts that could close government offices delivering vital public services, including benefit and tax payments, and courts services.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told PF: 'We're due to meet with Gordon Brown shortly and will raise our opposition to the government's plans for the civil service. A strike is inevitable unless ministers and the Cabinet Office are serious about addressing some of our concerns.'

The meeting on January 16 will be chaired by Gill Rider, Cabinet Office director general of human resources, who co-ordinates Whitehall's personnel issues.

Ministers and senior Cabinet Office officials are keen to avoid confrontation with their staff at the beginning of a critical year for the government and civil service – including a change of prime minister and, possibly, the ministerial team that oversees Whitehall reform.

However, continued discontent is likely because cost-cutting programmes will necessitate further job reductions and privatisation at departments such as the Ministry of Defence and Work and Pensions. Brown has already capped civil service pay rises at a below-inflation 2%.

The government was committed to cutting 84,500 civil service jobs following the 2004 Gershon Review. New efficiency programmes outlined by Brown last year, including the closure of Revenue and Customs offices across the UK, could slash a further 20,000 posts beyond 2008.

However, Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell this week warned that the government was in no mood to back down over plans to reform Whitehall. In a letter published on the civil service's intranet system, he warned staff to give the strike ballot 'very careful thought'.

'Industrial action will damage the services we provide to the public… and it will not resolve any of the issues we need to address,' he wrote. 'The key issue is simple. We serve the public and they expect us to find ways to deliver more effectively. As taxpayers they also expect value for money. We must be realistic; public sector resources are limited and that means we have to adapt, just like every other organisation.'

O'Donnell reported that just 35 people have been made redundant compulsorily so far, out of a total of 45,000 job cuts.

But Serwotka claimed that departments have reached 'the crunch point' of their efficiency programmes and are now struggling to make further cuts without compulsory redundancies. Hundreds more, he said, have already been earmarked. Serwotka wants Brown to guarantee that there will be no more compulsory redundancies.

'[Economic secretary to the Treasury] Ed Balls recently forced a contractor, Siemens Business Services, to agree to an eight-year deal to avoid compulsory redundancies and we think that similar deals are easily achieved across Whitehall departments,' Serwotka said.

'But there is a lack of political will at the highest level – and some managers want to retain the threat of redundancies as a crude tool to improve staff performance.'

One issue that unions will discuss with Rider is the perceived lack of a consistent approach to civil service reform. Serwotka claims that some departments, such as the R&C, have taken a 'progressive' approach and included staff in consultations. But others, including the MoD and the DWP, have been 'gung ho.'

While the PCS opposes privatisation, Serwotka accepts that further contestability is 'inevitable' and is seeking a commitment that unions will be consulted over future proposals.


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