A social partnership approach – not confrontation – is needed at national level to resolve the dispute about public sector pensions. Unilateral employer and government action that results in strikes is unhelpful.
Public services rely on highly motivated people working with service users and communities. Public servants are driven by a desire to provide a responsive and quality service irrespective of whether they are employed in the public, private and third sectors.
The economy as well as the wellbeing and safety of society depend on teachers, nurses, social workers, police, food inspectors, care staff, refuse collectors and many other public servants. There is also need for staff employed in policy roles, as regulators, in support services and in management.
It is regrettable therefore that sections of the media and some politicians constantly label all public servants as bureaucratic self-servers. This is simply inaccurate. From many media reports the public could be excused for assuming that the public sector is overflowing with over-paid staff. The reality is somewhat different. Whilst some public service employees are reasonably well rewarded, many receive some of the lowest wages in the country. Many have had their pay frozen for two years in spite of rising levels of inflation.
A well-managed public sector organisation should, just as a private sector business would, continually review staff numbers and the profile of the workforce to ensure efficiency and effectiveness. Good performance management is essential in all sectors and the public sector should not tolerate poor performance, unjustified absence or over-staffing. Such practices can undermine public confidence in the sector and are at the expense of effective and much needed services. The public sector must strive for higher levels of productivity.
However, much of the current debate on public sector pensions is exposing some of the myths about public sector remuneration. Much of the media would have us believe that these pensions are all gold plated and much more generous than anything to be found in the private sector (even more so than those at the tops of the banks?!) Of course the reality is somewhat different with, for example, the local government pension scheme payments being so low that many pensioners have to augment their income with pension credits.
The public service workforce is currently facing more than inaccurate and politically inspired media attacks. Public sector employers – and indeed employers in the private and third sectors – are imposing diminished terms and conditions on their staff – often with little consultation and certainly not with any meaningful negotiation. The government appears to be pre-empting negotiations on the future of public sector pensions. The Hutton report on public sector pensions was widely acknowledged to have made some sensible proposals but as Lord Hutton himself has said any change should be the subject of genuine negotiation between government, employers and trade unions.
No one could honestly or objectively deny the need for radical change across our public services. Even without the public expenditure pressures changes would be necessary. Rising public and user expectations, technological and social media advances and demographic change all demand that public services are delivered and funded in new ways. Thus, inevitably there will be circumstances when it will be necessary to move to revised terms and conditions including pensions for public service employees.
These are not just matters for public sector employers. The public sector is increasingly procuring services from the private and third sectors; and other services are being purchased directly by service users themselves. It is important that staff working in these sectors do not face imposed changes to their terms and conditions. TUPE entitlements should be honoured. Responsible contractors have always strongly supported TUPE and were comfortable with the ‘two tier code’ and ‘Fair Deal on Pensions’ provided the procurer was willing to fund these commitments.
Therefore the recent abolition of the ‘two tier code’ was a very regrettable move. It could lead to poorer quality services and greater employee hostility to outsourcing. And now the Fair Deal on Pensions is to be abolished. TUPE could itself be undermined if increasingly public sector employers and others are willing to use section 188 powers to force through changes to terms and conditions with the only alternative being dismissal.
Employees and their trade unions should not – and do not – resist all change. This would be wrong and short-sighted. It could put employment levels at risk and be detrimental to effective and efficient services delivery. Trade unions and their members often recognise the need for change and propose changes themselves.
These are very challenging times yet in the gloom there are opportunities. We need new radical ideas. Trade unions could consider how they might support and create employee led co-operatives to run public services. Private sector employers could ensure that all public service employees have a stake or shares in their organisation.
Every effort should be made to reach agreement where there are proposals for changes to terms and conditions including pensions and working practices. Trade unions have to be ready and willing to take part in negotiations on these issues as they have been on pensions As in the private sector they have to demonstrate a willingness to agree to changes some of which only a few years ago would have seemed impossible and unreasonable. Of course the unions understandably will have ‘red lines’ across which they and staff should not be expected to cross. They have a duty to their members and have to respond to them.
Experience in the public and private sectors in this and other countries demonstrates that is easier to improve productivity and to secure sustainable change when staff and their trade unions are fully engaged and respected. Traditionally many changes have been secured in the public sector though a social partnership approach. – eg when TUPE was first adopted. Today there is an urgent need to re-affirm a commitment to a social partnership approach at national level and between all public service employers – public, private and third sectors – and their staff and unions. Unilateral employer and government action that results in strikes is unhelpful.
Government and employers must not undermine their staff through hostile political messages or the unilateral imposition of adverse changes to terms and conditions; and trade unions must not allow themselves to become the standard bearers of small ‘c’ conservatism. The public demands better of all of us.