UK: OPEN TO NEGOTIATION - ACAS. - The recent rail strike was one that got away. ACAS's main success lies in solving disputes without industrial action and saving the state millions of pounds. Rupert Morris

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The recent rail strike was one that got away. ACAS's main success lies in solving disputes without industrial action and saving the state millions of pounds. Rupert Morris

Suddenly last summer, it was back to the old days at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS): two bogeymen (Jimmy Knapp and Bob Horton) trading daily insults in the media, while their delegations gathered from time to time at the ACAS headquarters in London's Wilton Street, in the glare of TV cameras. Inside, they would remain closeted until the small hours, while increasingly desperate and exhausted reporters would badger ACAS press officer David Mattes for the latest news: 'Is there a new offer?' 'Are the two sides together?' and eventually, as the deadlines slipped past: 'Have they ordered food? What are they having?'

These events follow a well-established routine, not least in the matter of nourishment. The surest sign that the two sides are working in earnest towards a solution is when they send out for fish and chips, or pizza. It means they want to settle things in the current session, and not come back the following day. After several abortive attempts, it was pizza that cracked the rail dispute.

But these high-profile negotiating marathons are a small part of ACAS's normal work. Until the rail strikes, most people had forgotten the organisation's existence - and not surprisingly, for self-effacement is its stock-in-trade. Like a missionary in brothel-creepers, ACAS has been quietly making converts since 1975, persuading individual disputants to settle out of court, bringing management and unions together to settle their differences, and replacing discord with harmony wherever possible.

Hived off from the Department of Employment in 1974, ACAS was put on a statutory footing on 1 January, 1976, charged with 'the improvement of industrial relations ... encouraging the extension of collective bargaining ... and reform of collective bargaining machinery'.

Although its council remains composed equally of union and employer representatives, its role has changed as the law has changed. But ACAS as an institution now has an air of permanence. Having been subject to its five-yearly review in 1992, it should be more or less safe from interference from this government. The union reforms of the Thatcher governments and rulings from the European court have gradually switched the emphasis away from collective bargaining towards individual rights. This is reflected in how ACAS staff spend their time.

Nowadays the majority of the service's 600 staff are mainly concerned with individual conciliation. These are the everyday complaints about injustices of working life - mostly claims of unfair dismissal. Plaintiffs have the right to take their cases to industrial tribunals, but first, every case is referred to ACAS to see if the matter can be settled by conciliation and compromise. This is a task that falls to an Industrial Relations Officer (IRO) such as veteran David Cook. If ever a man embodied the benign, inscrutable, unflappable, incorruptible face of ACAS, it is he. With his furrowed brow, balding head with straggly dark curls at the back of his neck, and jowls that rearrange themselves in any number of appealing and sympathetic ways, he is irresistibly reminiscent of a spaniel. Except that a journalist in search of trenchant opinions or spicy gossip would be better off talking to a spaniel.

So does Cook listen to both sides of a case and then, with the benefit of his experience, weigh up their chances, and advise accordingly? The jowls shake disapprovingly. 'I've given up trying to second-guess industrial tribunals,' he insists. Besides, it isn't his job to offer opinions. His whole raison d'etre, of course, is to be impartial, and that means he doesn't give advice. Like a conscientious psychotherapist, Cook asks questions, gives information and conveys messages. For the cure to work, the decision must come from the patient, or in this case, the patients. He is the prompter, the agent who teases out the most productive areas for discussion. Needless to say, Cook takes nothing for granted. But when he says that 'you learn to recognise patterns of behaviour' he is on the verge of committing himself. 'People don't always follow a pattern,' he adds hurriedly.

At any rate, the results seem impressive enough. In 1993 there were 75,000 cases requiring individual conciliation, of which a third went on to an industrial tribunal, a third were resolved through conciliation, and a third were dropped or settled unilaterally. Since each industrial tribunal case costs the state over £1,000, those that are solved by ACAS conciliation represent a massive saving - £12.5 million to be precise, or something over half the service's annual budget of £23 million.

'ACAS helps employers save a lot of time,' says David Armstrong, industrial relations director of Railtrack, 'particularly when individuals submit claims that have little substance, but won't believe it when their employer tells them so.' This might suggest ACAS is pro-employer, but trade union district secretaries such as Brian Northey and Jim Bevan of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, who handle several such claims every month, speak highly of ACAS's impartiality. In collective conciliations, Jim Bevan, for one, is not so sure. In a local dispute in Cardiff, he felt undue pressure was put on his shop stewards.

This kind of work is the concern of senior industrial relations officers such as Ruth Lambe, who like David Cook works at ACAS's Eastern and Southern region office in Fleet, Hampshire. 'I don't talk their language,' admits Ruth Lambe, one of many civil servants to have transferred from the DoE,'and I think the union representatives feel inhibited sometimes.' But like every ACAS official, she has one overwhelming concern: 'If we lose our impartiality, we lose our integrity, and people will stop coming to us. I hope I'm not easily shocked,' she adds. 'You have to have a sense of humour, and I always try to establish some repartee.' It doesn't always work but lost causes are few. ACAS reported that in over 90% of completed conciliations in 1993, all forms of industrial action were avoided. The recent rail dispute has to count as one that got away, having cost the industry £200 million, plus incalculable goodwill, before it was settled. Would it have been worse without ACAS? Armstrong of Railtrack says ACAS was 'helpful in keeping lines open', and enabled them to explore areas of negotiation without commitment. During the days when the two sides were publicly refusing to speak, ACAS officials visited each in turn to continue probing for possible areas of compromise. Armstrong would not admit this, but he did say that matters became 'quite complex' because of the different contributions from executive members on the union side, and different management departments on his own side.

The question remains: might ACAS actually prolong some disputes by allowing the two sides to strike attitudes, while leaving real negotiations to the professional conciliators? Armstrong seemed ambivalent on this point, but John Townsend, assistant secretary of the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union (BIFU) has no doubt that ACAS's role is overwhelmingly constructive. 'When you've got two sides, each with a public position, and each with a fall-back position, it's much easier for a third party like ACAS to find each side's fall-back position and find a compromise that satisfies both.' He cites a case in point - a dispute over London allowances with a particular bank - and goes on to discuss a more recent dispute with the TSB bank, resolved in mid-October, on the eve of a strike. Without ACAS, he says, the strike would have gone ahead as the necessary trial of strength before a resumption of negotiations.

But there is much more to the ACAS role than knocking heads together. Occasionally, both sides in a dispute agree to refer an issue to arbitration. Out of 1,200 requests for collective conciliation, only 163 were referred to arbitration in 1993. Then there is the advisory work, which may have nothing to do with disputes. In the mid-'80s, when Pirelli Cables wanted to open a factory in Wales, ACAS helped introduce it to local employers, compare local industrial relations practices, and in the end, in the words of David Yeandle, personnel director, put a single-union, no-strike agreement effectively 'out to tender' to one of five unions. MATSA, the clerical section of the GMB, was the winner.

More recently, at Dartmoor prison, where drastic changes were needed to satisfy the chief inspector of prisons, ACAS led a series of workshops, resulting in the establishment of a joint steering group to conduct the necessary changes. The improvement in morale is clear from the comments of prison officer Suzy Dymond-White: 'Staff feel included, as if their opinions are not only heard but valued and acted upon. Interdepartmental communications have improved and with continuing effort and interest from the workforce there is a feeling that the future of Dartmoor is something we do have a say in and that the chief inspector's recommendations can realistically be aimed for.' The other significant function that ACAS performs is dealing with enquiries. This is reckoned to account for 13% of staff time, a percentage that has risen gradually as employer rights have been bolstered first by the industrial relations legislation of the Thatcher governments, then by various decisions of the European court. In 1993 the service's public enquiry points (PEPs) in each of the nine UK regions received 481,392 calls, mostly dealt with by telephone. There were 2,657 meetings held as a result.

On one Tuesday afternoon at the Fleet regional office the phone rang more or less constantly. There was an employee enquiring about redundancy. An employer who wanted to fire an employee of 10 years' service because of some nameless 'disability'. Someone asked about sickness benefit. Another complained that his employer would not give him a contract - what were his rights? And a shopkeeper wanted to hire an assistant but was unwilling to do a lot of reading about his rights and responsibilities as an employer. Wendy Appleton has been dealing with these kinds of queries for four years now, and has the answers more or less automatically. It is not her job to take on a case; she may, if requested, refer a caller to an IRO, but otherwise she must try to deal with every query within six minutes. The Fleet PEP consists of six full-time staff and two trainees, and expects to field 60,000 calls in 1994.

The three main functions of individual conciliation, collective conciliation and handling public enquiries are supervised by the regional director - in this case Frank Coley. Most regional directors have been SIROs, and continue to fit in collective conciliations in between their administrative tasks. Coley is the exception, which allows him more scope to proselytise on ACAS's behalf. Like most of his colleagues, he came from the DoE, where he was a senior principal. He talks of doing educational work; this ranges from giving lectures at CBI conferences to keeping in touch with local firms, and organising occasional seminars under ACAS auspices. It sounds as if it could be a part-time job, but Coley talks about it with a missionary zeal that suggests it is anything but. He has recently been involved in helping the local police force with its newly civilianised staff. Throughout the public sector, devolution and transfer of responsibilities have blurred the old lines and created real or potential industrial relations problems. In deciding when and where to offer help, ACAS staff are guided by their 'statement of aims', updated in 1993. Civil servants don't talk about mission statements, but that is exactly what this is. The mission is: 'To improve industrial relations and employment practice, to minimise conflict and to encourage all people at work to be involved in and committed to the greater effectiveness and success of their organisations.' The means are fourfold: 'preventing and resolving disputes ... to foster constructive relationships ... promote employee involvement and an improved quality of working life; promoting settlement of actual or potential complaints to Industrial Tribunals ...; providing impartial information and advice on matters concerned with employment relationships ...; and promoting a wider understanding of good practice in developing and maintaining constructive relationships at work.' This wide brief explains why senior ACAS people attach great importance to networking. They see it as their job to know as much as possible about industrial relations in their area, and to use their contacts to guide people into the paths of righteousness - or industrial correctness.

But is it their job to do things that might come under the heading of management consultancy? Job evaluation, for instance, is a task ACAS has undertaken in the past, but recently conciliators have begun to question whether they shouldn't stop at this point, and tell the company to go and buy from the private sector.

On the face of it, there is scope for market-testing ACAS and, since April 1994, the service has been obliged to charge for its handbooks and other publications, and for conferences. These charges are merely to cover costs, so the 70-page handbooks (on Discipline at Work or Employing People) cost a very reasonable £1.50, while the conferences vary between £25 and £100 a head.

So why doesn't ACAS charge more heavily and more often? Why not charge for much of its advisory work? Peter Syson, director of strategy, has been with ACAS since 1975, and he has a well-rehearsed answer. It all comes back to ACAS's impartiality. If ACAS were paid by the employer, how could it serve the employees equally? Besides, there is a major difference between ACAS and a management consultant. ACAS tackles every problem according to its own principles, which include employee involvement. If you call in ACAS, you more or less have to do it its way.

The sum of evidence is that the ACAS way is remarkably successful. The avoidance of industrial tribunal cases has been mentioned. The effect of strike prevention is impossible to quantify, but if ACAS can claim, as it does, to have solved 90% of disputes without industrial action, it must have saved millions of pounds. Advisory work has certainly helped prevent subsequent disputes, not least by improving trust as revealed in a lengthy study by two Oxford academics, Ian Kessler and John Purcell, An Evaluation of ACAS Advisory Work. Customer surveys show more than 85% satisfied with the PEP service. But as Coley points out, ACAS's remarkable reputation for impartiality and conscientiousness springs entirely from its staff, many of whom have passed up opportunities of promotion to stay in a job they find uniquely rewarding. David Cook is a case in point. As he puts it: 'I've stayed in ACAS so long because I still get the same kick out of the work. And I think we provide a useful service.' All things considered, it does not seem an extravagant claim.

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