Sunday, March 01, 2009

UNISON NEC report to London branches

This is the text of my report to Greater London UNISON Branches from the February meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC). It's a bit on the long side so make a cup of tea before settling down to read this...

Conference Business – Policy Motions

The meeting began by discussing the NEC’s motions and Rule Amendments for this year’s National Delegate Conference. These will appear in the Preliminary Agenda for Conference in a couple of weeks, but if any Greater London Branches would like sight of the text of the motions as put to the NEC please let me know.

The topics of the motions are as follows;
Organising ;
Learning and Organising;
Improving UNISON Structures;
Climate Change
The Economy
The Housing Crisis
New Challenges for the NHS
Public Services
Welfare Safety Net
Cuba
Rights of Public Service Workers to Organise and Collective Bargaining
Palestine;
Funding the Equal Pay Challenge.

There was some discussion of amendments to the motions at the meeting and the greatest controversy surrounded the motion on Palestine, which had been agreed by the International Committee but which a number of NEC members (myself included) felt did not adequately reflect UNISON’s established position of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

The Chair of the Policy Committee proposed a number of amendments to the motion from the International Committee, most (but not all) of which were agreed by the NEC against the opposition of the International Committee.

Alongside this discussion, the NEC also considered a separate item outlining the work which had been undertaken in response to the recent Gaza crisis. UNISON had been well represented on the London demonstration on 10 January.

The Palestinian trade unions had been invited to Health Conference and Dave Prentis had turned down an invitation to the Congress of the (Israeli) Histradut Government Employees Union citing the failure of the Histradut to condemn Israeli military action.

Conference Business – Rule Amendments (general)

The NEC also agreed Rule Amendments for submission to Conference as follows;
Schedule B (bringing the Rules on Benefits into line with the Rule Change on Legal Assistance agreed last year which reduced the qualifying period of membership from 13 to 4 weeks);
New Rule G8 (introducing Equality Representatives)(in relation to which I think that there may be need for further consultation with our self-organised groups);
New Rule G.4.1.6 (this prohibits one person holding more than one of the offices of Branch Chair, Secretary and Treasurer – the original incentive for this amendment comes from instances of fraud perpetrated against the Union by individuals who were both Branch Secretary and Branch Treasurer);
Rule Q (this changes the definition of “reserved seats” to increase the hourly rate of pay for eligibility for these seats to £8.50. I had raised concerns about how to give effect to our intention of excluding London Weighting from this definition and this will now be dealt with by subsequent interpretation of the Rules).

Conference Business – Rule Amendments (UNISON structures)

The following additional Rule Amendments were agreed arising from the discussion at the Development and Organisation Committee on UNISON Structures;
Rule D.3.1.1 adding a new “Community” Service Group and deleting Rule D.3.7.4;
Rule D.3.1.1 replacing the Higher Education Service Group with a new Further and Higher Education Service Group;
Rule D.3.1.1 replacing the Police staff Service Group with a new Police and Justice Service Group;
Rule D.3.1.1 merging the Water and Environment and Transport Service Groups into a new Water, Environment and Transport Service Group;
Rule D.3.1.4 changing the functions of Service Groups consistent with the proposed amendment to Rules D.3.7.1 and D.3.7.2;
Replacement rules D.3.7.1 and D.3.7.2 giving sectors autonomy over bargaining and industrial relations issues;
Rule Q (new definitions of Sector and Occupational Group);
Rule D.2.9.6 clarifying the power of the NEC to oversee cross service group work;
Rule D.2.9.13 giving the NEC power to issue guidance on the democratic accountability of sectors.

There was considerable debate around these Rule Amendments reflecting the debate which had taken place at the Development and Organisation Committee on the previous day. Several NEC members felt that the consultation process had been rushed so that, for example, the Higher Education Service group had agreed to oppose the previous proposal (which would have included members in schools in an all embracing “Education” Service Group) and could not commit to support the new proposal as this had not been discussed with the Service Group.

I did not oppose the proposed creation of new Service Groups, although I know that there is not a complete consensus amongst those affected by all of the proposals on the basis that there will be further discussion between now and Conference, and that it would take a two thirds majority at Conference to agree these.

I did however oppose the proposed changes to the roles of Service Groups and Sectors because I fear that the current proposals create a democratic deficit which they do not then address. At present Service Group Conferences can hold Sector Committees to account over their conduct of bargaining over important industrial relations issues. Because the NEC is not proposing to create the possibility of Sector Conferences, but is devolving accountability from Service Groups to Sectors, these proposals would remove from effective democratic accountability some of the most important work of our Union. This debate will now continue with consultation on NEC guidelines on the democratic accountability of Sectors, about which I will circulate a separate report to UNISON branches in Greater London in the near future.

Conference Business – Rule Amendments (BNP membership etc.)

Further Rule Amendments were also agreed which are intended to update our Rules in relation to the power of the Union to exclude or expel members of the British National Party or other far right organisations in the light of Section 19 of the Employment Act 2008;
New Rule C.5.2 which states that members of political parties, the objects of which are contrary to the objects of UNISON are not eligible to be UNISON members;
A replacement for the existing Rule C.5.2 and a new Rule C.5.5 which removes the requirement for new members to be approved by a Branch Committee and gives potential members who are to be excluded the right to make representations;
A replacement for Rule !.3 consistent with the proposed new Rule C.5.2.

This subject had been discussed at the Development and Organisation Committee but the wording of these Rule Amendments had not been available until the NEC meeting itself. I would have preferred a more straightforward Rule Amendment dealing with the British National Party by name, but can understand the argument that far right organisations frequently change their names and that there are other fascist groups members of which we may wish to exclude from our Union.

I opposed the removal from the Rule Book of the right of Branch Committees to reject applicants for membership which is presently in Rule C.5.2 and which these Rule Amendments would remove. Conference delegates probably now need to take the time which the NEC did not take to decide whether we have got these particular Rule Amendments right (although of course we can always make further amendments in future years).

After a number of years in which the Thursday afternoon of Conference (when debates on Rule Amendments traditionally take place) has been quiet and the Standing Orders Committee have been able to timetable policy debates in the expectation that the Rules debate will not take up an entire session, this year branches will need to set aside some time to discuss Rules Amendments and to mandate delegates in what will be a series of important debates.

Recruitment

It was noted that UNISON membership had increased by 1.5% (or 19,000 net) in 2008 as we recruited a total of 156,000 people. Given the recruitment of over one hundred local and area organisers and the introduction in the coming year of the facility to join UNISON on the website we may have the scope to increase membership growth in the coming year.

Public Sector Pay Negotiations

The General Secretary reported that there had been little change since the previous NEC meeting. The Union is pressing employers in Further Education to implement last year’s pay award. The Head of Local Government reported on the arbitration hearing at ACAS the previous day, details of which have been circulated to local government branches.

Equal Pay

As has been the case at each NEC meeting for at least the past three years, the NEC received a confidential and legally privileged report updating us on developments in legal cases and their implications. Individual NEC members are asked not to report in writing on this item in view of the possibility of such reports being used by “no win no fee” solicitors taking action against the Union. Branches should contact Regional Organisers and check the website to be kept up to date on this issue.

Industrial Action Handbook

The NEC endorsed a revised version of UNISON’s Industrial Action Handbook which had been agreed by the Industrial Action Committee. The revised handbook will be re-printed and published on the website. This continues to affirm the right of branches to appeal to the Industrial Action Committee where the Regional Secretary does not agree to authorise a ballot for action.

UNISON Response to the Economic Crisis

The NEC received a useful report summarising aspects of UNISON’s response to the Economic Crisis. The General Secretary made clear that it will be a priority to maximise the turnout on the “Put People First” demonstration on Saturday 28 March (details of how to order additional leaflets are on the website).

General Secretary’s Report

The General Secretary reported that some NEC members had complained about other NEC members having written an open letter to him about an issue.

An NEC member from the Northern Region made clear that it was Northern Region NEC members who were complaining about an open letter expressing concern about the case of Yunus Bakhsh (of which I am very happy to have been a signatory).

In response, I asked for, and received, an assurance that UNISON is investigating evidence of BNP involvement in an internal UNISON disciplinary matter in that Region.

Campaigning against the BNP

The NEC received a report dealing with plans for anti-BNP work in the run up to June’s European elections. UNISON will continue to work with a range of partners including, the TUC, Searchlight, Unite Against Facism (UAF), the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR) and Show Racism the Red Card. The Policy Committee and General Political Fund Committees have agreed to prioritise Searchlight’s “Hope Not Hate” campaign.

Social Care

The NEC was updated on work on children’s social work following the Baby P case and on the personalisation of Home Care. Branches will be aware that UNISON made detailed submissions to the Laming Inquiry and that one our our national officers has been appointed to the Social Work Taskforce created by the Departments of Health and Children, Schools and Families. 80% of Home Care is now delivered in the private and voluntary sectors, and there will be a session on personalisation of home care at Local Government Service Group Conference as well as a joint meeting of the Health and Local Government Service Groups to address this and other issues. Further information is available on the website.

Review of Political Fund Effectiveness

The NEC noted a report on (limited) progress in implementing last year’s Conference decision that the NEC should “carry out a full review of political fund arrangements” – there will be a seminar for members of the Political Funds Committees and the Policy Committee in Manchester in March to be followed by a questionnaire on political organisation, lobbying and campaigning for branches and regions in the spring, leading to an interim report to Conference 2009 and a final report the following year.

New Head Office project

The budget for the building of the new UNISON HQ building, work on which has now commenced, has increased from £70 Million to £72.5 Million. The Finance and Resource Management Committee is receiving regular reports on this project. Further information is available online.

UNISON Disciplinary issues

I was one of a number of NEC members who voted against accepting the routine report on UNISON Disciplinary matters. I did this because it is the only means available to an NEC member wishing to express formal opposition to the conduct of any particular case. Any Greater London Region UNISON branch wishing to ask for an explanation of my vote (or indeed to ask about any matter covered in or omitted from this report) please get in touch.

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