Bargaining and Social Dialogue in the Public Sector (BARSOP): United Kingdom Report

Hopkins, B. and Simms, M. (2018) Bargaining and Social Dialogue in the Public Sector (BARSOP): United Kingdom Report. Project Report. AIAS - UVA.

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This report highlights some of the profound changes and challenges facing public sector industrial relations in the UK since the financial crisis. In common with many discussions about public sector employment relations, the key explanation of different approaches relates to the agendas of the government. The UK has seen three general elections during the period under consideration, and three distinct periods of policy direction: Labour (to 2010), Coalition (2010 to 2015), and Conservative (2015 onwards). From 2010 onwards, there has been a clear policy to reduce public sector spending, cap public sector wage rises, and fundamentally reform the provision of public services. While it is clear that this agenda has led to some similar issues within the health, education and municipalities sectors around wage restraint and job quality, the impacts of this have varied across sectors. Whether or not funding has been ringfenced is a crucial explanatory factor in the sectoral effects. It is also clear that devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland means that the transformation of public service provision is playing out very differently in those settings. Nonetheless, in all the sectors and regions, common pressures relate to a changing funding con-text in which service providers are certainly expected to do more with the same resource, and often with less resource. Government pay restraint policies mean that staff are facing pay freezes and below-inflation pay rises while redundancies and higher staff turnover mean there are often fewer staff to perform revised roles. This context has caused a great deal of dissatisfaction among staff and unions and is leading to increasingly tense industrial relations in all three sectors. A particularly interesting commonality is the increase in industrial action, although even in the more densely unionised UK public sector, this has had little effect in reversing the impacts of austerity. While there has been an effort to ‘pull together’ to deliver changes, in some cases those changes have created a context that has led to industrial action, especially in the health sector. By contrast, although municipalities have undoubtedly been hit hardest by spending cuts, there are good examples of restructuring of services to attempt to maintain a level of service provision. Two points emerge from this assessment. First, where there has been an opportunity for services to restructure to eliminate inefficiencies and find new ways of working these have been regarded by many providers as ‘low hanging fruit’. In other words, it will require more profound changes to achieve further savings. Inevitably, the more substantial a proposed reorganisation, the longer it will take to negotiate with social partners. Second, where changes are negotiated, social partners report reasonably constructive relation-ships even in the municipalities where the budgets have been under most pressure. The dispute with junior doctors in the NHS was created largely because of an inability to negotiate change and the eventual imposition of a new contract by the government. This strongly indicates that if large scale industrial disputes are to be avoided, on-going negotiation and compromise will be necessary from all sides as budgets are cut further. In other words, the mechanisms of collective regulation do seem to be effective in providing a ‘safety valve’ for negotiating the pressures of service re-organisation and budget cuts. In short, the mechanisms of industrial relations have largely proved effective in ensuring the continued running of public services even in very difficult circum-stances. This importance of this conclusion should not be under-estimated in the context of such deep cuts and against the background of the Trade Union Act. The Act places considerable additional constraints on the actions of public sector unions. This has the potential not only to disrupt the smooth running of collective regulation in the public sector, but also to disrupt service provision if collective negotiation is undermined.

Item Type:Research Reports or Papers (Project Report)
Additional Information:Report available from Country Reports Part II.
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Simms, Professor Melanie
Authors: Hopkins, B., and Simms, M.
College/School:College of Social Sciences > Adam Smith Business School > Management
Publisher:AIAS - UVA

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