Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  Q80  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: The euphemism "social partnership" is something that needs to be defined. What does it mean in this country? What would it look like?

  Ms O'Grady: We do have social partnership arrangements, for example, in respect of the Low Pay Commission where it is recognised that equal weight should be given to the voice of employers and representatives of workers in addition to support and advice from independents. We have it with the Health and Safety Commission. It is not unknown in Britain, but it is very limited.

  Q81  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: Therefore, "social partnership" means that the unions have an equal voice to employers with government?

  Ms O'Grady: Clearly, not equal with government. Governments are elected by the whole people, but there is recognition that two very important constituencies in the country with a shared key interest in the prosperity and, hopefully, decent standards in the country should have a voice around the table and there should be some parity between the respective voices certainly a better balance than we have now.

  Q82  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: That is a very laudable position, but if you are arguing for equal parity between the unions and employers, through what platform do you deliver that relationship? Where does that exist?

  Mr Page: One would deliver that through the setting up of a social partnership structure within a company. There are examples where companies in the UK have done this. If one has an issue like skills training where there is a particular employer's interest because of the specific needs of the company and the markets that it is now developing and in future, but also a specific need of the workforce in terms of the individual skills that workers need for the job they are doing, or a job that they may be doing in five or 10 years' time, one has a common interest in having a well-trained workforce, but the specific needs of the employer are slightly different from those of the employees. You bring the two sides together and they sit down and talk about it in a holistic way.

  Q83  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: Why do you not deliver that through the sector skills councils?

  Mr Page: Maybe some of that work could be done through sector skills councils, but within an individual company a sector skills council would be too big and bureaucratic. It is much easier for a company to set up a social partnership body within that company there are European precedents for that in order to develop specific arrangements based on those individual needs.

  Ms O'Grady: As you know, there is a requirement that sector skills councils have at least one trade union place, but having one seat out of 12 is not the same as having six.

  Q84  Chairman: You are saying that you want greater representation of the voice of the workers and their representatives in every forum to do with skills?

  Ms O'Grady: That is our principled position. Interestingly, the sector skills councils that are ahead of the game in coming up with agreements and implementing them are the ones where we have the best representation. We are also a driver for change.

  Q85  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: How do you justify your claim that "unions often have a much clearer grasp of the longer-term skill needs of the whole workforce than employers"? How do you know that?

  Ms O'Grady: I know that some individual employers would agree. Some can be very good in respect of their own business in knowing what they need tomorrow. With pressures on them they are not necessarily brilliant about what they might need in five years' time. They are not necessarily very good in thinking about what is good for their whole sector, unless there is a good supply chain relationship which tends to focus minds. They certainly do not necessarily think in many ways why should they? about what is good for the whole economy. When we are all sitting round the table together between us we can come up with a good solution, but individual employers do not always think beyond the borders of their own companies and the longer-term interests of the sector and economy.

  Q86  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: That reinforces the answer you have just given that you need representation in skills fora to capture the micro and macro-issues facing skill shortages in the UK?

  Ms O'Grady: Yes.

  Q87  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: The next question is something very close to my heart. How should employers go about attracting more people into the industry, especially women? What should be the role of government and unions in that process?

  Ms O'Grady: I think that a lot can be done about image. I would like to see the government acting as a national champion to attract young people into manufacturing and talking up, not talking down, manufacturing.

  Q88  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: One acute problem in terms of completing apprenticeships is the lack of employer engagement. What are you doing as a union with regard to the employers that you are working with to say to them, "If you offer more work-based training opportunities for young people you are likely to bring in more women"? I speak to women up and down the country who are involved in training programmes that sit outside the normal providers and who say, "Give us job-based training and we will complete our apprenticeships." If the union does have a significant voice are you saying to employers that they should give maximum training opportunities and then stipulate that those should be for women and people from ethnically diverse backgrounds?

  Ms O'Grady: You will be very pleased to hear that currently we are running a campaign where we are doing just that in terms of bargaining and training our own union learning representatives who can be great mentors for apprentices, young men as well as young women. But it is particularly important for young women to stay the course where they are only three out of a hundred. It is important to get it built into agreements at a sectoral and company level that equality and getting a better balance of apprentices is key. We have materials that we can forward to the Committee.

  Q89  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: The government has £124 billion worth of public procurement contracts. It has a major union involvement in terms of employees. Are you going to the government and asking what training opportunities it is instilling and building into its contracts to ensure that it delivers on apprenticeship and training programmes in the public sector and through public sector contracts? Are you doing that? If so, I want to know about it. I cannot find much evidence of it at all.

  Ms O'Grady: I can say with absolute confidence that we initiated this and in addition we have had the guts to go to the Treasury on it. I would be very happy to supply the Committee with that information as well. That is a matter that we have taken up as a priority in terms of vocational training more generally, to which we are absolutely committed, and the importance of building that into procurement policy. This relates also to other issues, specifically following the Women and Work Commission where we argued the same point on gender and race equality.

  Q90  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: Are you happy that government departments are doing enough training and offering training opportunities?

  Ms O'Grady: No.

  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: Nor am I.

  Q91  Mr Clapham: I refer to Mr Page's reply regarding the social contract and how that can impact on skills. Do you agree with me that there is a superb example at London Heathrow Terminal 5 where the trade unions and employers entered into a long-term agreement that covered all aspects, resulting in that terminal being a world quality building delivered on time? Do you agree that that is the kind of thing that can result from such a contract?

  Mr Page: That is exactly the kind of thing. You are right that Terminal 5 is a model. I hope that as we move forward to the Olympics in 2012 when some of the big procurement projects arise we can look at Terminal 5 and learn some of the very important, positive lessons flowing from that experience.

  Q92  Mark Hunter: I want to ask about the regional dimension. In the evidence that you submitted to us you expressed concern that the regional skills partnerships "lack enough buy-in from employers and the workforce". Would you expand briefly on why you think that is the case? Do you think that regional skills partnerships have a useful role to play in resolving problems, or do they simply get in the way and muddy the waters?

  Ms O'Grady: I suspect the practical answer is that we have probably been overtaken by events. With Leitch's recommendations and greater focus on regionalisation of the LSC we will see less duplication at that level. I believe that that has been a problem for employers and workers more generally. That should not be read as a lack of commitment to regional economic policy and strategy. The TUC sees great potential in that approach, but lots of people would admit that the RSPs have been patchy.

  Q93  Chairman: I want to end this session by asking an overarching question. I still find this a very complicated area. I know that there has been a structural change post-Leitch; we have learning and skills councils, national skills academies, regional skills partnerships, sector skills councils, sector skills development agencies, the Skills Alliance and now the University for Industry. In evidence to us the EEF said that, "Despite the best intentions the raft of initiatives in recent years has created a bureaucratic structure which employers struggle to navigate and" this is the important bit "with which the majority of them have become disengaged. The very complexity of the system means that particularly smaller companies just cannot cope and so they give up." Do you think that is a fair analysis?

  Ms O'Grady: I have a lot of sympathy for the concerns about complexity, and we share an interest in simplification. However, the one thing that all these various quangos and bodies have in common is that they are required to be employer-led, not employment-led as we would prefer. Some might say that it is a bit rich that those who have been given the opportunity to run and control all these various bodies should then complain that they are not performing.

  Q94  Chairman: I take issue with that. In my own region I hear complaints from employers that the various bodies have to spend all their time coordinating with one another. Because they are so confused about one another's responsibilities or overlap they have no time to get on with doing their actual job. There are people employed by the regional development agencies to coordinate the work of all the other players and they spend a lot of time at meetings discussing what they ought to do but never actually do it.

  Ms O'Grady: Yes.

  Q95  Chairman: That is an elusive "yes". Is that a "yes" of agreement or challenge?

  Ms O'Grady: I recognise that I am the one who is supposed to be here to give the answers, but if the question is "why if it is employer dominated is it not working? perhaps that should be put to the employers.

  Q96  Chairman: They believe that it is dominated by state bodies, for example the learning and skills councils, the regional development agencies and so on.

  Ms O'Grady: Every single one of them is required by law to be dominated by employers.

  Chairman: That is not the way most businesses see the RDAs.

  Mr Binley: The problem is that it is big business dominated. It is CBI stuff all the way down the line, and we ought to think about getting further down into the SME chain.

  Q97  Mr Clapham: Ms O'Grady, I am looking at your submission. I note you are very concerned about the way in which the positive contribution that trade unions can make is not being recognised. The pertinent part is in paragraph 22.3: "The TUC is disappointed that Prosperity in a Changing World"—a document published by UK Trade and Investment—"does not make any reference to trade unions and the positive role that unions can play." Can you say a little about the positive role that unions can play in addition to what UKTI can do?

  Mr Lent: We know that when overseas companies look for a place to invest they make their decisions based on many different factors, but clearly one of them is the nature of industrial relations in any economy. We feel that to promote the very positive industrial relations that many manufacturing companies have in Britain must surely be a selling point for the UK. Just to give a very practical example of that, we know that some time ago it was normal for trade unions and their representatives to take part in trade delegations overseas, but that seems no longer to be the case, even though trade unions often take part in overseas DTI initiatives on policy development, for example. We argue that to encourage trade union representatives to take part in overseas trade delegations would be an extra factor to sell UK Plc overseas.

  Q98  Mr Clapham: Have you raised this matter with the Department of Trade and Industry; and, if so, what has been the response?

  Mr Lent: In truth, it was something that we really began to consider when we were asked to contribute to the Select Committee, but it is something that we will probably take forward given the more positive response that we get both here and elsewhere.

  Q99  Mr Clapham: I think that it is an important point and one that should be raised with the DTI. On what kind of strategic sectors do you believe UKTI should be concentrating? If you think there are sectors that should be concentrated upon how do they differ? What are the main features that you think should be embodied in those sectors on which we should concentrate?

  Mr Lent: If you are talking about specific sectors, one area where we think there may be considerable prospects for promotion overseas is green manufacturing and the development of the environmental industry. We know that that has grown very considerably in the UK in recent years, but we believe that a great deal more can be done certainly domestically by the government to promote enterprise in that area and also to sell it overseas. This is a global market that is growing massively and the UK needs to take advantage of it. Given the level of manufacturing experience and expertise in some areas of research and development, that should certainly be promoted.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 18 July 2007