Dean Royles: maintaining employer-union partner relationships is critical

The future of industrial relations is far too important to let it be shaped by the poor experiences of some

The summer is often referred to as the ‘silly season’ in politics and the media. It is traditionally a period when not much of interest happens. Parliament is in recess, people are on holiday and don’t keep up-to-date, so 'human interest' stories ascend to headline status. Therefore you will be forgiven for not spotting an important Parliamentary Bill and three significant government consultations that will shape the future of industrial relations in Britain.

The Trade Union Bill has already had its first reading in Parliament, with the second due in September or October. Three consultations have also been launched (with a seven-week window closing on 9th September).

The Bill is set to bring about some important changes including:

  • Industrial action will only be lawful if there is a minimum turnout of 50% of those eligible to vote
  • In ‘important public services’ such as health, transport and education there must be a minimum of 50% turnout and at least 40% of all those eligible must vote in favour of action
  • New rules on facilities and time off agreements (including the potential to ‘cap’ facilities time)
  • Overturning the ban on using agency workers to cover striking employees
  • The appointment of picket supervisors who must wear a badge or armband readily identifying them
  • Time limits for strike mandates
  • Levying a charge on trade unions and employer organisations to cover the costs of the certification officer.

Many of these proposals are significant changes set to alter the tone of our relationships with staff, trade unions, and the way industrial action is managed. For example, last year in the NHS there was strike action over the pay and pensions policy. Strikes aren’t common in the NHS – it was the first for doctors for over a generation and the first for midwives in more than 100 years. But we had local agreements that emergency care would continue, and it did.

Under the new voting rules what would happen? I’d like to think (because I know how committed staff are) that urgent work would continue, but it is a huge assumption on my part and needs public debate. Will trade unions that achieve those new voting thresholds be able to legitimately respond that urgent cover is now an employer responsibility? Given the timescale, when will this debate happen?

I understand the public frustration about the impact of poor industrial relations. But those of us charged with providing regular, reliable, and safe public services know how finely balanced employee relations are. Many places in the public sector have taken a partnership approach to industrial relations, working with trade unions to make change in a reasoned, sensible way. This has paid dividends such as improved patient care, a better employee voice and staff engagement, as well as agreements on pay awards protecting lower paid employees. I want to ensure we build and develop this approach.

Partnership working has been a credible alternative to old style adversarial relationships and I think it is right that we explore the potential impact of the changes on those relationships. Industrial relations are too important to the services we provide to let their future be shaped by rules aimed at overcoming poor examples. As an HR community committed to maximising the contribution of our people we need to make sure a measured employer voice is heard, and it needs more than seven weeks over the ‘silly season’ to do it justice.

Dean Royles is director of HR at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust