Local authority conditions of service

This article looks at the structure of nationally and locally negotiated conditions of service in local authorities.

National conditions of service

The National Joint Council for Local Government Services - National Agreement on Pay and Conditions of Service (the Green Book), which applies to the vast majority of local government members of staff, sets out the core conditions of service, including working time and leave and sickness and maternity provisions). The national provisions are regarded as a minimum and some authorities negotiate or apply conditions that are "better" than the national conditions.

While local authorities individually determine the grade and the pay range that apply to individual posts and the employees holding those posts, the National Joint Council (NJC) for Local Government Services also negotiates the pay spine from which the majority of pay grades are constructed. Those authorities that utilise the salary points on the spine to structure their pay grades uprate pay in accordance with revised rates negotiated in the NJC.

Other terms and conditions are determined locally. Local authorities do not generally utilise confidentiality or restraint clauses or those relating to intellectual property, except insofar as the national conditions of service for both chief executives and chief officers build in restrictions for a 12-month period before an individual can be employed by or provide services to a body with which the individual may have been involved as a local authority employee if the subsequent employment or provision of service could reasonably be regarded as "reward". This clause was designed to prevent senior officers taking posts with commercial organisations that have contracts with the authority for which they had previously worked, without the agreement of their former employer.

Framework of industrial relations in local government

Although there are wide variations in the level of trade union membership in individual local authorities, the cornerstones of employee relations in local authorities are the collective bargaining and consultation procedures.

The National Joint Council (NJC) for Local Government Services - National Agreement on Pay and Conditions of Service (the Green Book), which sets out the nationally negotiated terms and conditions of service for most local government staff, is itself a product of negotiations between the national employers' side and the three principal trade unions (UNISON, Unite and the GMB), which form the national staff side.

These three unions also operate at regional level forming the staff side of each of the provincial councils. This provides a vehicle for consultation and/or negotiation on matters that are adjudged worthy of determination regionally. The extent to which agreements are reached at provincial level varies throughout the country.

Locally these three unions are the core unions that are generally recognised by individual local authorities and with which the principal collective bargaining and consultation take place. They are also recognised as being those that will raise issues affecting, or support the needs of, individual employees, eg at grievance or disciplinary hearings. Most local authorities have formal recognition and facilities agreements to underpin their industrial relations, the structure of which includes a Joint Consultative and/or Negotiating Committee at departmental and authority level involving, as appropriate, managers and/or, for some issues, councillors.

Local negotiating bodies

Most local authorities have well-established facilities and consultative and negotiating agreements and procedures with their trade unions. Authorities should, however, be aware of the provisions of the Trade Union Recognition (Method of Collective Bargaining) Order 2000 (SI 2000/1300). While, strictly speaking, the Order is directly applicable only to recognition determined in accordance with the provisions of the Employment Relations Act 1999, it sets out some benchmarks that might be helpful when considering issues of recognition and bargaining machinery.

Under the Order, membership of a Joint Negotiating Body should comprise an equal number of employer and union representatives; each side should have at least three members; and each union recognised by the employer in respect of the bargaining unit should be entitled to at least one seat. In some local authorities this latter point has been difficult where a particular union has minuscule membership.

In establishing or reviewing the constitution of such a body and, in particular, the structure of decision-making, authorities may wish to take into account the judgment in Graham v South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council [2004] All ER (D) 443 (Feb) EAT, in which it was held that, for the purposes of the Green Book, a local agreement to vary terms and conditions of employment must either be agreed by all the recognised trade unions or be determined by a process that has been agreed by all the recognised trade unions.

The message from the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Graham is clear: in order to prevent a minority union exercising a veto on a proposal that has been agreed by the representatives of the majority of the affected members of staff, authorities should ensure that they have a process, agreed by all the unions, that allows a proposal to be agreed by the majority of the trade union side in the absence of unanimity.

At the same time the individuals who comprise the employers' side must either be those who take the final decisions within the organisation in respect of pay, hours and holiday, or be those who are expressly authorised by the employer to make recommendations directly to the people who take such final decisions. Except where it would be unreasonable, the employer should select as a representative the most senior person responsible for employment relations within the organisation. If translated into a local authority context, this potentially has implications for the role of councillors in negotiations, although the reference to involving those who make recommendations may mean that chief personnel officers take the lead in negotiations and then refer to the political executive when required for a final decision.