Social partners make joint input to UK National Action Plan on employment

This feature focuses on the involvement of the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress in the preparation of the UK's National Action Plan on employment, drawn up by the Government in response to the EU's 1998 Employment Guidelines

At the special Jobs Summit in Luxembourg in November 1997 (EU9711168F), EU Member States agreed to a set of Employment Guidelines designed to provide a framework for national action under four main headings - employability, adaptability, entrepreneurship and equal opportunities. National governments were asked to draw up National Action Plans (NAP s) on employment by 15 April 1998, and to give the social partners the opportunity to make a specific input into the Plan on those aspects of the "employability" and "adaptability" guidelines which give them a direct role. National governments were also expected to consult the social partners about the Plan as a whole and make appropriate arrangements for their views to be incorporated. Member States' NAPs will be considered by the Cardiff European Council meeting in June 1998.

Involvement of social partners

The Government consulted both the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) about the contents of the UK's NAP and the two organisations made a direct contribution in the form of two joint statements (concerning the "employability" and "adaptability" guidelines) which are incorporated in the Plan in their entirety in italicised text. The NAP also stresses that the social partners have a valuable role to play in taking forward the UK's employment agenda.

The social partners' input to the plan was coordinated at meetings in January and February 1998 involving officials of the CBI, TUC, Department for Education and Employment, Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury. After an initial meeting, CBI and TUC officials agreed draft joint statements to the Government on guideline 4 encouraging agreements promoting employability and on guideline 13 concerning agreements to modernise work organisation - areas of the Employment Guidelines which envisage a specific role for the social partners. A further meeting between social partner and Government officials considered the joint statements together with a draft of the UK Plan as a whole. The TUC executive committee then formally approved the joint social partner statements at its February meeting. The process culminated in a top-level meeting with senior CBI and TUC representatives, chaired by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, which discussed thefinal version of the NAP.

Key features of the CBI/TUC joint statements

The two organisations agree that "taking further action building on and strengthening existing initiatives to promote employability and adaptability is essential if the targets fixed by the guidelines are to be met".

In the area of employability, the social partners emphasise their agreed view of the importance of effective vocational training throughout working life in order to meet rapid changes in markets, technology and work organisation and to enhance competitiveness. The statement notes that there has been a high level of trade union and employer support for, and involvement in the delivery of, initiatives such as "Modern Apprenticeships", the "National Traineeship", "Investing in Young People" and the "New Deal" ("Welfare to Work" programme - UK9707143F), all of which are aimed at improving the employability of young people.

The joint CBI/TUC statement points to several areas where employers and trade unions are working together to enhance employability:

  • framework agreements at sectoral level making provision for both apprenticeship and continuing training leading to national vocational qualifications;
  • work in national training organisations at sector level to develop and promote occupational standards;
  • unions providing learning services with the support of employers (such as the UNISON trade union's "Return to Learn" programme); and
  • TUC regional/Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) "Bargaining for Skills" partnerships, which are enhancing the capacity of union representatives to work together with employers to promote learning through modern apprenticeships, take-up of national vocational qualifications, commitment to the "Investors in People" scheme (UK9703111F), employee development schemes and the establishment of learning centres at the workplace.

The statement also points out that the National Advisory Council for the Education and Training Targets (NACETT) - on which the two organisations have representatives - provides an opportunity for the social partners and others to work together to influence national policy development and to achieve the national targets.

In the area of adaptability, the CBI and TUC state that they "fully support proposals to encourage workplace partnerships to promote new forms of work organisation. Employers are increasingly seeking more highly trained and adaptable workers who can acquire new skills throughout their working lives. Employees on the other hand are seeking a guarantee of employment security and work that is stimulating and fulfilling. These objectives can only be achieved if workers are employed by dynamic and competitive organisations. It is clear that both employers and employees have a shared interest in business success."

The two organisations also state that:

  • the Government has an important role in promoting and disseminating good practice. There should be further discussions about establishing more effective relationships between the social partners, TECs, "Business Links" and other institutions to ensure that there is appropriate support for the implementation of new practices;
  • flexibility in working time is an important element in any new approach to work organisation. The TUC and the CBI can see significant advantages for both employers and workers if a range of freely chosen working patterns are available in the labour market;
  • the implementation of the EU working time Directive (UK9805123F) will provide the opportunity for the two sides of industry to reach agreements on how best to reconcile the flexibility that employers want with the security that workers need; and
  • the CBI and TUC have participated in negotiations at EU level on part-time work to introduce "sensible" provisions to increase security and flexibility (EU9706131F). The Government should consider what changes might be made to the social security system to ensure that part-time and temporary workers can accumulate entitlements to contributory social security benefits.


Although proposing no major new initiatives, the joint statements agreed between the CBI and the TUC can be seen as a further modest step in the direction of social partnership in the UK context. The agreed language used does not identify the respective priorities of each organisation: it was felt that this would tend to emphasise differences in an area where it was desirable to focus on the two organisations' commitment to agreed action. However, the central thrust of guidelines 4 and 13 is the negotiation of collective agreements, particularly at sectoral and enterprise levels, to promote employability and "achieving the right balance between flexibility and security". Britain's decentralised collective bargaining structure makes it difficult for EU and national policy objectives to be translated into bargaining outcomes. Nevertheless, driven by economic pressures, particularly in key sectors such as the automotive industry, UK collective agreements over the 1990s have tended increasingly to feature trade-offs between management and unions, linking employment security with enhanced flexibility in areas such as working time and work organisation. (Mark Hall, IRRU)

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