Friday, January 06, 2012

The Rule Book and the pensions dispute

Sometimes, on cold, dark, winter evenings, when the North Wind whistles around the chimney tops, I am asked to tell tales of the UNISON Rule Book.

One important story explains who is accountable for the decisions which now need to be taken within UNISON about the Government’s “final offer” on the NHS Pension Scheme and the “Heads of Agreement” with the Local Government Association (LGA) on the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). It often confuses members that those of us who are members of the National Executive Council (NEC) aren’t involved in these decisions in that capacity, but that is as it should be.

Under Rule D. each of UNISON’s seven Service Groups has autonomy, on behalf of its members, to negotiate pay and conditions of service, and (under Rule D. to negotiate the settlement of any disputes arising from the employment of its members. Each Service Group has a Service Group Executive (SGE) (in accordance with Rule D.3.5 if you’re taking notes). The SGEs are the decision-making bodies which will meet on Tuesday 10 January to consider the pensions dispute.

Under Rule D.3.5.3 the majority of members of an SGE are directly elected biennially (and the elections are just coming up now - the nomination period will open on Tuesday 10 January 2012 and close at 5pm on Friday 17 February 2012.) A minority of members may be co-opted, and the NEC members elected to the NEC to represent the Service Group are also voting members of the SGE. Each SGE is bound by the policies agreed by the Annual Conference of the Service Group, in accordance with Rule D.3.4.2.

(An attempt to amend our Rules to shift the responsibility for bargaining to Sector Committees (which are indirectly elected under Rule D.3.7.3 and which have no Annual Conference to hold them to account) failed when National Delegate Conference 2009 rejected, by a clear majority Rule Amendment 13, which would have made this change. Personally, I thought Conference got this right, although our subsequent decision, as an NEC, not to pursue the matter again may need to be revisited.)

Although, under Rule D.3.1.5; “The policies and activities of a Service Group shall at all times be subject to and consistent with the policy of the Union as laid down by the Union’s National Delegate Conference or as applied by the National Executive Council and within the Rules of the Union” – this has never been taken to override the clear autonomy of the Service Groups granted by Rule D.3.1.4.

Therefore, to take the simpler case, whatever decision the Health SGE makes in relation to the NHS Pension Scheme, that shall be UNISON’s decision, neither the NEC nor our National Delegate Conference, could overrule the SGE. The only body above the Health SGE in our Rule Book is the Health Service Group Conference (which will meet in Brighton in April).

The case of the LGPS is more complex, since several of our Service Groups have members in the LGPS and, whilst the Local Government Service Group has by far the greatest number, nothing in our Rule Book says that a decision of one Service Group can bind another Service Group, regardless of the numbers involved. This gives rise to the same complicated question of coordination which arose in the last LGPS dispute, since it is quite possible that different SGEs may reach different conclusions about the Agreement with the LGA.

There is a Service Group Liaison Committee (SGLC), comprising a few senior NEC members together with representatives of Service Groups and Sectors. This Committee does not feature in our Rule Book, except obliquely in that, under Rule D.2.8; “the National Executive Council shall have the right to appoint such Committees from amongst its membership as it shall see fit, and shall have the power to delegate to such Committees any of its functions as it considers appropriate.”

Leaving aside the point that the SGLC includes members who are not “amongst the membership” of the NEC, the key consideration is that the NEC does not have any function which it could delegate to the Committee which would trump the autonomy of each Service Group.

This mode of coordination provoked the ire of our Local Government Conference in 2007. The Local Government Conference at that time expressed a lack of confidence in the SGLC and proposed that “a union wide review is conducted into the lessons of the dispute and report back on the findings and make recommendations for future cross service group disputes.”

Although no such review took place in those terms there was a proposal to write into the Rule Book, at the 2009 Conference, a power for the NEC to “oversee cross service group work” (this was in response to a decision of the 2007 National Delegate Conference that the NEC “reviews and enhances cross service group working”).

I don’t think that there are any easy answers to these issues, since the autonomy of Service Groups is important to the democracy of our union, and to members being in control (as far as possible) of negotiations which take place on their behalf. There is an inevitable tension between democratic accountability and solidarity which probably cannot be resolved.

The upshot of all this history is that there isn’t really a mechanism to resolve differences of opinions between SGEs about a cross service group dispute which would comply with UNISON’s Rules, so were such a difference to arise there would need to be a consensus between those who had the substantive disagreement about a procedure for its resolution.

Whether any of this will matter in the case of pensions we shall have to wait for Tuesday to find out. The SGLC would then, on Wednesday, face the task of sorting this out.

Should anyone be looking for Rule D.3.4.11 later next week, you’ll find it on page 16 of this year’s Rule Book.

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