Monday, January 29, 2007

Not just for anoraks!!!

What follows is a message I have sent today to UNISON Branches in London concerning the seemingly obscure but very important question of ongoing consultation on the arrangements for the Standing Orders Committee for the Greater London Regional Council. You might think this is one for us anoraks, but if unless all activists pay attention to these questions it is people in somewhat smarter attire (than we anoraks) who will have cause to celebrate...

"I am writing to you because, as one of your members of the National Executive Council (NEC) I sit on our Regional Committee, of which I have been a member for a number of years. I apologise in advance for the length of this message – but I hope you will agree that it deals with an important matter.

You will have received, a little while ago, a circular from Regional Office asking your views on the “standing orders” arrangements for our UNISON Regional Council, suggesting that you express a preference between two options and inviting your branch to respond by 1 March.

You may also have noticed that there are a couple of motions on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting of the Regional Council Annual General Meeting this coming Thursday which address the same subject. The Regional Committee has asked the movers of both motions if they will withdraw them from the agenda to allow the consultation process to conclude.

I writing to encourage branches to respond to what may not at first appear the most vital consultation document – and also to advise you of an option which was discussed at the Regional Committee but was not then included in the circular sent out from the Regional Office.

BACKGROUND

As some of us will remember, when our Regional Council was first established after vesting day there was a separate, elected, Standing Orders Committee which decided whether motions and amendments tabled by branches for the Regional Council should be admitted to the agenda. Not long into UNISON’s infancy the Regional SOC proposed that it should be abolished and its duties passed to the Regional Committee.

Our Regional Committee has therefore carried out the functions of a Standing Orders Committee for the Regional Council for a number of years. This has not caused any significant difficulties before the current year since the Regional Committee has generally taken the view that Regional Council should be allowed to debate whichever motions branches or Committees wish to put before it.

Nor has the Regional Committee changed its approach in the current year. However, on more than one occasion motions submitted for the Regional Council have either not (initially) been placed before the Committee for consideration, or the Committee has been told that it may not admit motions to the agenda (even though it is the Standing Orders Committee for the Regional Council). These new developments do not appear to have been led by lay members.

OPTIONS FOR CHANGE

The Regional Secretary put before the Regional Committee two proposals for alternative arrangements for the administration of standing orders in relation to the Regional Council. These are the two options set out in the letter which you will have received from the Regional Office. A third option, raised at the Regional Committee and widely welcomed at the meeting, was not included in the letter sent to consult branches.

The two options in the letter are, as you will have seen, that the either the Regional Finance Team or the Regional Council Officer team should take on the role and functions of a Standing Orders Committee for the Regional Council. The third option, not included in the letter, is that there should be a separate independent Standing Orders Committee elected by the Regional Council.

I hope that your branch will consider responding to the consultation exercise if you have not already done so and will, in doing so, consider the advantages and disadvantages of all three options (as well as considering any other ways of resolving this question).

Although, as I have said, it is only in the very recent past that there seems to have been a problem with the Regional Committee carrying out the Standing Orders Committee role in the Region, it is easy to see why this is less than ideal. The Regional Committee is one of the bodies which can put motions to the Regional Council and so you could argue that it has a conflict of interest when ruling on the admissibility of its own motions. As someone put it at the Regional Committee – it is a bit like asking the National Executive Council to act as the Standing Orders Committee for National Delegate Conference!

However, this problem is hardly dealt with by either of the two options set out in the letter issued by the Regional office to consult branches on this issue. Both the Regional Finance Team (consisting only of the Convenor, Finance Convenor and –unelected – Regional Secretary) and the Regional Council Officers Team (consisting of the six elected officers) are – in effect – SubCommittees of the Regional Committee. These two options are a bit like asking either the Finance Committee of the NEC or the Presidential Team to act as the Standing Orders Committee for Conference!

THE THIRD OPTION

An independent, elected Standing Orders Committee (as at National Conference) may not always make decisions which are universally welcome, but it is almost certainly the most appropriate model for a democratic and lay led trade union to administer the standing orders for important decision making meetings. The minimal cost of establishing such a body would be a small price to pay for ensuring that the administration of our lay structures remained under the effective control of lay members elected by and accountable to the membership.

I have written this letter because I have been concerned that branches have not been advised, by the office, of the third option which was discussed at the Regional Committee, and which seems to me to be the best and most democratic way to deal with the problem which has now been drawn to our attention.

I hope that in considering your response to this consultation exercise your branch will give full weight to all the options.

I look forward to seeing you at the Regional AGM on Thursday."

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