Social partner involvement in the 2002 NAP

This feature examines social partner involvement in the UK's 2002 National Action Plan (NAP) for employment. It is one of a set of similar features for all the EU Member States, written in response to a questionnaire.

This feature outlines how the main UK social partner organisations - the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) - have been involved in drawing up the UK's 2002 National Action Plan (NAP) on employment. Under the European employment strategy, each year the EU Member States draw up NAPs in response to the annual Employment Guidelines.

Similar features on social partner involvement in the 2002 NAPs have been drawn up by the European Industrial Relations Observatory (EIRO) national centres in all the EU Member States, in response to a questionnaire. Details on the background to this exercise, and the questionnaire used, can be found at TN0206102F. Readers are advised to refer to the questionnaire in conjunction with this feature.

Procedural aspects

The main social partner organisations involved in the production of the 2002 UK NAP were the CBI and the TUC. The NAP also lists CEEP UK- the UK section of the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) - as having been consulted. This feature is based on information provided by CBI and TUC officials during short interviews with the author.

Government officials convened a meeting in January 2002 involving CBI and TUC representatives to discuss how the process of drawing up the NAP would be handled. At this meeting there was a preliminary discussion of the types of social partner initiatives that would need to be covered in the NAP - on which government officials requested the CBI and TUC to supply further information. Contact then took place via e-mail and telephone. Government officials drafted the text of the NAP, including the material relating to guidelines 13 and 15 (those directed most centrally at the social partners, covering the modernisation of work organisation and 'supporting adaptability in enterprises as a component of lifelong learning' respectively). CBI and TUC officials then commented on this and subsequent drafts. Both the CBI and TUC officials concerned felt that the timetable for making the necessary input, though tight, was manageable.

With regard to the extent to which the social partners' views are represented in the NAP, the CBI official concerned felt that, 'by and large', the organisation's views were properly taken account of by the NAP. The TUC's views were reflected in the NAP 'up to a point': the TUC said that it was able to influence the tone and drafting of the NAP and add to its content but the main thrust of the NAP remained unchanged. The TUC believes that the UK cannot realistically be portrayed as a 'social partnership economy', arguing that the CBI-TUC productivity initiative (UK0111104N) and the Low Pay Commission (UK9711177F) are the only real examples of social partnership at national level.

The NAP is a government document, produced in consultation with external bodies, not a joint text. It is not signed by the social partners. The 2002 NAP does not include a section written by the social partners. The first UK NAP, in 1998, incorporated joint statements by the CBI and TUC on the issues of improving employability and modernising work organisation (UK9805122F). Similar joint statements, which also dealt with strengthening equal opportunities policies, were included in the 1999 and 2000 NAPs, but this practice was discontinued in 2001. The CBI commented that the social partner organisations in the UK are 'less autonomous' in the fields covered by guidelines 13 and 15 than is the case in a number of other EU countries and that significant government input is therefore needed.

With regard to the degree of consultation over the NAP, the CBI official interviewed for this feature regarded the consultation as 'effective' in that the organisation's input was taken account of in the NAP. As mentioned above, the TUC said that it was able to influence the tone and drafting of the NAP but not its main thrust.

Matters of policy content

The UK has not developed a 'comprehensive partnership' with the social partners for the implementation, monitoring and follow-up of the European employment strategy in the sense of having a single institutional framework for their involvement. The TUC sees this as a weakness, arguing that 'the main problem in terms of social partner involvement is that the UK lacks the institutional arrangements between the social partners on the one side and between them and the government on the other side to take all the various elements of the employment guidelines process forward' (UK0201168F).

The CBI sees no need for an overarching framework, arguing that, while the two organisations are consulted on a wide range of issues, the precise mechanisms vary according to the issue concerned (eg other stakeholders may need to be involved), and that some issues are potentially more fruitful for joint action than others. However, the CBI acknowledges that there can be value in joint dialogue, for instance where this leads to recommendations on policy issues, and points out that the amount of joint CBI-TUC activity has increased over the past five years.

A range of initiatives taken by or involving the social partners which are relevant to the guidelines are referred to in the NAP. These include:

  • the joint CBI/TUC report The UK productivity challenge;
  • a joint CBI/TUC project, 'Partnerships for Prevention', to improve health and safety;
  • a CBI project to help companies make improvements to work organisation;
  • a TUC initiative, 'Changing Times', to promote innovative working time patterns;
  • the Department of Trade and Industry's 'Partnership Fund' to support the development of workplace partnerships for the improvement of employment relations and competitiveness (UK0205103F); and
  • CBI and TUC involvement in the 'Work and Parents Taskforce', which examined how best to implement a legislative duty on employers to consider requests for flexible working from employees with young children (UK0112105N).

With regard to the social partners' assessment of the government's overall employment policy, the CBI is broadly supportive of the 'welfare to work' strategy (eg the New Deal, employment zones or benefits reform - UK9707143F) but critical of some other aspects of government employment policy, notably the nature and level of regulation (UK0206102N), including the impact of EU employment Directives. In the area of skills, the CBI strongly supports the 'Investors in People' training standard (UK9703111F), which it believes has been a successful policy instrument for the voluntary approach to training. In the CBI's view, the main focus now should be on increasing the take-up among small and medium-sized enterprises. The CBI does not wish to see the government adopt a regulatory approach to training.

The TUC believes that the government's employment policy is 'on the right lines'. The TUC supports the 'welfare to work' strategy but identifies the treatment of the long-term unemployed and the equality agenda as 'areas where there are weaknesses'.

On the question of whether the social partners perceive any gaps or insufficiencies in the NAP, the CBI official concerned commented that the NAP is a 'fair reflection' of UK employment policy. It represents a 'good stab' at the issues in the context of the EU guidelines, but the CBI thinks the guidelines themselves need to concentrate less on employment protection and more on employment promotion. The TUC official interviewed said that the NAP is an adequate framework - 'all the right headings are there'- but argued that 'the problem is that the UK doesn't actively engage with the guidelines.'

Bargaining

The 2002 Employment Guidelines promote collective bargaining in the areas of:

  • improving the quality of work and employment (in general);
  • modernising work organisation (guideline 13);
  • lifelong learning in the context of competence and skill development in enterprises (guideline 15);
  • 'active ageing' (guideline 3);
  • strengthening equal opportunities for men and women (tackling the gender pay gap, desegregating the labour market, reconciling work and family/private life etc) (guidelines 16,17 and 18); and
  • social integration by way of better access to the labour market for groups and individuals at risk or at a disadvantage, such as people from ethnic minorities, migrant workers, long-term unemployed people and people with disabilities (guideline 7).

Concerning such bargaining, the UK's 2002 NAP refers to one recent sectoral-level agreement - on modernising work in local government. This covers the development of employment policies and procedures to achieve fairness and equality in pay, access to training and promotion, and improved work-life balance. It also provides a commitment to the implementation of locally-agreed development plans designed to enhance investment in skills and individual development across the workforce. However, as the NAP points out, the UK industrial relations system is not characterised by formal national and sectoral bargaining arrangements.

The NAP does not provide details of bargaining on the issues listed above carried out at company or establishment level. This is not to say that such bargaining is non-existent. Both the CBI and the TUC pointed out that a considerable amount of bargaining on such issues takes place - though this is unlikely to be a direct result of the EU guidelines. For example, driven by economic pressures, a number of collective agreements in key sectors such as the automotive industry (UK0205104F) have focused on enhanced flexibility in areas such as working time and work organisation.

The TUC reported that it had supplied illustrative examples of innovative agreements to the government officials preparing the NAP but that these had not been cited in the NAP. The TUC was ambivalent about this outcome. While it wanted to demonstrate that bargaining on the issues highlighted by the guidelines could be valuable and to encourage its spread, at the same time it would be misleading for the NAP to give the impression that such cases were typical of the UK economy as a whole.

Commentary

The UK's NAP does not have a high profile in terms of domestic political debate or media coverage. It is seen by the government and the social partners largely in terms of meeting the UK's reporting requirements under the European employment strategy, although the TUC would like to see the NAP process developed in order to strengthen the development of social partnership in the UK context.

The CBI appears generally more satisfied than the TUC about its involvement in the process of drawing up the 2002 NAP. This is consistent with the views reported by the two organisations in respect of the 2001 NAP (TN0203103F), perhaps reflecting the greater importance trade unions attach to active labour market planning and to formal tripartite structures for consulting the social partners on government policy development.

In terms of the social partners' role in the implementation of certain of the key employment guidelines, it needs to be recognised that the UK's highly decentralised collective bargaining structures and their patchy coverage make it very difficult for EU and national policy objectives to be translated into coordinated bargaining outcomes. (Mark Hall, IRRU)

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